When the 2000 Cup Champ Bobby Labonte suddenly found himself without a ride at Hall of Fame Racing for seven of the last twelve races of the season, the underfunded but respectfully well-performing team of TRG Motorsports offered him a spot in their no. 71 car for those races (it didn’t hurt that Labonte has a past-champions provisional to bring to this non-top 35 team, guaranteeing them a starting spot). Surprisingly, in the two races he has been in this car, he has run very well, posting an 18th at Atlanta and a 22nd at Loudon. In fact, in all parts of the weekend, he has outperformed his no. 96 HOF entry, both compared to his own stats and the performance of the driver who bought him out, Erik Darnell. This is going to work out either very good for Labonte, very bad for Hall of Fame, or both.
TRG, while not being new to racing, is new to NASCAR this year. They have a limited fleet of vehicles, and 10 total employees (including the truck driver). The no. 71 does not have a primary sponsor and cannot afford to run the whole race on their unsponsored weekends, relying on their winnings to fund their week-to-week operations. Though they tend to qualify well, often being one of the top go-or-go-home cars on Friday, their race finishes when they do race are usually poor, despite the efforts of driver David Gilliland.
Then Bobby comes along, and the whole team seemingly perks up. They’re fast in practice and run in the top ten during the race. At Loudon, Bobby, who thought he had “forgotten how to qualify,” put the car in the 8th starting position… his only top-ten qualifying effort all year, with only two other top-15 runs.
With TRG, Bobby is showing he can still “get it done,” and hasn’t lost the talent he had in 2000. At Gibbs, his team relied to heavily on the status quo, the sport surpassed them, and he struggled in his latter years. He then went to Petty Enterprises to drive the no. 43, whose fame was the only thing going for it. Now, TRG often outqualifies fully-funded teams, and with Bobby in the car, outraces them.
Herein lies the problem: Labonte’s normal ride, the no. 96 Hall of Fame Racing entry is, for all intents and purposes, a Yates Racing car and full teammate to Paul Menard, and fully sponsored (save for those seven races) by Ask.com and Texas Instruments DLP. This car is one of the ones being outrun by Labonte and TRG. Yates has two fully sponsored cars, and the full slate of technology available to them. Yates has a technology and information-sharing alliance with Roush-Fenway Racing, and supposedly builds the best engines in the business. Yet, they have finished one-third of the races in 2009 outside of the top 25, have had one top-ten, and sits 31st in owner’s points. TRG, the-little-team-that-could, is not supposed to be beating them.
This could affect sponsorship for Hall of Fame. For their first few years, Texas Instruments DLP was their primary sponsor, and they have reduced their backing to the associate level. Ask.com came in this season as one of the few companies with new money to spend in the sport, and signed a one-year deal with HOF. They, now, are looking elsewhere for 2010.
As is Hall of Fame. For their first few years, they were the illegitimate child of Joe Gibbs Racing. They thought the cars were getting equal preparation and they were in equal equipment, but it took Joey Logano, who raced the no. 96 for a few races at the end of 2008, to find they did not. The deal with Yates was supposed to be a full partnership, being Yates cars in all but name (to be fair, Yates driver Paul Menard is 33rd in owner’s points). And, with the Yates-Petty merger, Hall of Fame will have to find a new team to align with in 2010. However, if sponsors doubt their ability to perform, especially when their driver outperforms them in a “worse” team, it is unlikely they will remain in the sport for much longer.
Bobby Labonte, though, has shown he can still do it. He’ll be with a good team again next year.
Other NASCAR Notes:
Espionage at Richard Petty Motorsports? On Monday’s This Week in NASCAR, Jimmy Spencer eluded to the possibility of a “snake in the wood pile” in the engine room at RPM, causing their lone chase driver Kasey Kahne to blow an engine 70 laps into the Sylvania 300 this Sunday, the first chase race. This is in the wake of the announced Yates-Petty merger, which effectively will lay off the entire RPM engine-building staff. Here’s the interesting thing: none of the RPM drivers have had a single DNF all year, much less an engine related issue. Interesting…
Kurt Busch will not win the championship. His crew chief, Pat Tryson, has been locked out of the Penske Racing shop after announcing he will jump ship to Michael Waltrip Racing next year. I’m sorry, the crew chief needs to be at the shop building cars. This move, put in place to protect their preparations for next year from leaking to MWR, has cost them the championship.