NASCAR: 5 Former Stars We Want to See Make a Comeback

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2012

NASCAR: 5 Former Stars We Want to See Make a Comeback

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    One of the big lures for fans who participate in fantasy sports leagues is the ability to put together their own team of players, regardless of which teams those players play for in real life.

    There are even fantasy racing leagues for NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA drag racing and the World of Outlaws.

    While most fantasy teams are comprised of some of the best current-day players or drivers, there's something to be said about building a roster and including some former greats who are still around, but have lost a step or two … or even more.

    Even more fun would be to see some of those former greats return to prominence and the spotlight again.

    After going through all the drivers who have competed this season either full- or part-time, we've come up with our list of five former stars we'd love to see make big comebacks in their careers.

    Obviously, in most instances, given a driver's age or diminishing talent due to age, it's unlikely we'd see them suddenly come back next season and be title contenders.

    Still, it's fun to dream. Here's five guys that I'm sure their fans would love to dream about being back in competitive rides and battling for the championship.

Jeff Burton

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    With the way his career has taken a nosedive in recent years, Jeff Burton has almost become his own "Whatever happened to?" question.

    Some fans might even be surprised to know the younger brother of Ward Burton is still slugging it out in every race in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

    This season is the third time in the last four campaigns that Burton has missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    He hasn't won a race in more than four seasons (146 winless races and counting).

    He's had just two top-fives last season and thus far in this season's first 33 of 36 races.

    He's on track to finish with perhaps the second- or third-worst season record of his career.

    But oh, how we yearn for Burton in his prime, particularly that stretch from 1997 through 2000 when he raced for Roush Racing and compiled the best season finishes of his career: fourth, fifth, fifth and a career-best third.

    If there ever was a song title that would best describe Burton's present-day career and what he used to be like, it'd be Cher's 1989 mega-hit "If I Could Turn Back Time."

Bobby Labonte

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    If there ever was a conundrum in modern-day Sprint Cup Racing, Bobby Labonte would be right near the top.

    The Texas native and younger brother of two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte, Bobby was the toast of the Cup world when he won the championship in 2000. But since then, he's gone from a driver who won 21 races early in his career to a perennial also-ran.

    When former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart won his second Cup crown in 2005, Labonte wound up 24th, prompting a parting of the ways between himself and JGR at the end of that season.

    Since then, Labonte has bounced around a few different organizations, including Richard Petty Motorsports, but he's yet to find the kind of success he had earlier in his career.

    Consider that he hasn't won a race since 2003 (the season finale at Homestead), a streak that is now at 321 starts without a win.

    He's had just two top-five finishes in the past six seasons as well.

    His season finishes since leaving JGR (starting with 2006) have been 21st, 18th, 21st, 30th, 31st, 29th and 23rd in the first 33 races this season.

    And he has never enjoyed the experience of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup since the format was first introduced to the sport in 2004.

    Labonte is due to make the 700th start of his Cup career in the 10th race next season.

    We'd love to see him miraculously return to the kind of form that he displayed in that glorious 2000 season when he ran away with the title, winning by 265 points over the runner-up finisher.

    Do you remember who finished a distant second to Labonte that season? Believe it or not, it was the late Dale Earnhardt, and Labonte kicked The Intimidator's butt that season.

Mark Martin

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    Yes, I understand that it was Mark Martin's decision to go back to a part-time schedule in 2012.

    But even at the age of 53, Martin is still doing better than drivers half his age. In 21 starts (of the 33 races thus far this season), Martin is ranked a respectable 26th.

    Imagine where he'd be if he started those other 12 races that he took off.

    He's come close to winning a few times thus far in 2012, has four top-five and nine top-10 finishes. Oh yes, and he also has four poles.

    Even at his advanced age, Martin is like the Postal Service delivering mail: He brings it again and again and again, with dependability and efficiency.

    In 851 career Cup starts, Martin has never won a Cup championship, but has managed five runner-up titles.

    And let's reflect back to the period of time from 1989 through 2006: In those 18 seasons, Martin finished outside the top 10 just twice. He also won 35 races during that stretch.

    And then after going winless for the three previous seasons, Martin, at the age of 49, came back in a big way in 2009 with five wins and finished second only to Jimmie Johnson.

    We know Mark likes his time off and is enjoying returning to a part-time schedule for the second stint of his career.

    But boy, if we could pick just one driver to give an unlimited checkbook to for both salary and the best equipment money can buy, not to mention the best personnel in the business, all in an effort to see him finally earn that elusive championship, Martin would indeed be the guy.

Robby Gordon

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    We'll admit it: We miss Robby Gordon from the Sprint Cup Series.

    Due to a variety of factors, including insufficient sponsorship and starting his own brand of energy drinks, Gordon has been a virtual ghost on the Cup tour this season, having made just three starts.

    But that doesn't mean the 43-year-old has been idle. He's still racing a lot—just not in NASCAR. He's still a big off-road racing participant, as well as in endurance events.

    And while Gordon only managed three wins in 396 career Sprint Cup starts, the sport just hasn't seemed the same without the colorful and sometimes brash Californian.

    Given his age, Gordon still has time to come back to the Sprint Cup Series, hopefully on a full-time basis next season or in 2014 if he can get the right amount of sponsorship, great equipment and equally great people around him.

    Of course, that's what he's been looking for years, but we would sure love to see him finally put together a great year, especially since his best season finish ever was 16th in 2003.

    If Gordon were to miraculously return and have his best season ever next year, he'd likely throw a celebration party that would last a week.

Elliott Sadler

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    Virginia native Elliott Sadler proved there's nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about in taking a step back from Sprint Cup and taking his talents to the Nationwide Series.

    After a career-best Cup finish of ninth in the first year of the Chase (2004), Sadler couldn't buy a win or a season finish better than 20th (with the lone exception of 13th in 2005) from 2006 through 2010.

    Feeling his career was stuck in neutral, he accepted an offer to race full-time for Kevin Harvick in 2011 and came in a close second in the NNS championship battle to winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    And as of this writing, Sadler, now driving for Richard Childress, is atop the Nationwide standings with three races remaining—and Stenhouse is just a few points behind.

    Sure, Sadler would like to return to the Sprint Cup Series full-time, but with what he's shown in the Nationwide tour the last two seasons, he's likely to return again next season, albeit with a new team (rumor has it he'll be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing).

    Plus, Sadler is still in the prime of his racing career at the age of 37, so don't sell him short. There had been rumors Sadler might go to Furniture Row Racing in 2013, but that fizzled out when Kurt Busch joined the Denver-based team three races ago.

    Even so, our prediction is Sadler will be back full-time in a Cup ride by 2014, if not sooner.