In a rare late-season off weekend for the Sprint Cup, drivers and crews get the chance to regroup and begin to focus on the final stretch of the year.
Whether you are fighting for a championship or trying to solidify yourself in the standings, though, this off week may or may not be a welcome break.
Sprint Cup driver and former champion Bobby Labonte and his sponsor, official NASCAR search engine Ask.com, have teamed up to promote NASCAR OFF WEEKEND.
Fans can log on and search "NASCAR Off Weekend" on Ask.com and find out what Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed, Kyle Busch, and many others are doing on the final off weekend.
For example, the recently married Speed is going on his honeymoon.
Others who just can’t get enough racing will be competing in the Camping World Truck Series in Chicagoland or the Nationwide Series in Montreal, like Busch and Paul Menard.
I got the chance to interview Labonte recently about the program and what the off weekend can mean to not only the drivers going for the championship but the rest of the pack.
"It’s an opportunity for them to tell the fans what they are doing on the weekend off," Labonte said.
Fans will also get the opportunity to suggest what their favorite driver should be doing this weekend. They can email the ideas to DriverOffWeekend@ask.com and be entered to win autographed merchandise from Labonte.
Ask.com's current promotion is just another example of them reaching out to the fans, and really giving fans access to the drivers even when they are away from the track in a unique way.
"It’s great for the sport; it’s interactive and it doesn’t cost anything," Labonte said. "It’s great for the fans."
Every driver has a different agenda going into this off weekend in preparation for the race in Atlanta.
For the drivers, an off weekend can abruptly end any momentum you have going into the next race. For the Chase drivers, those who are inside the Chase and those who are fighting to get in, an off weekend may or may not be welcomed.
"The guys that are in the Chase that are trying to get in the Chase in the last two weeks, it might be more nerve-racking for them to have another weekend off," Labonte said.
But in such a long season, both the drivers and the fans need an off weekend, not only for drivers to regroup but to keep fans interested and wanting to come back for more.
NASCAR is the longest season in sports, and Labonte acknowledged that sometimes an off weekend isn’t so bad for the fans that travel to all the races.
"Thirty-six points races a year...it’s a long season for everybody," he said.
For Labonte, 2009 hasn’t been very easy; the team came together right before Daytona. With no testing and just a short time for Labonte and his crew chief Todd Parrott, they were starting from scratch.
The new team couldn’t find the success it had hoped for, it struggled coming out of the gate. His only top 10 finish came at Las Vegas where he scored a fifth-place finish.
In an effort to turn around their season, Yates Racing announced that Ben Leslie, former crew chief for the No. 28 Ford, would take over as the crew chief in late April. Parrott would move into a different role with Yates Racing.
Labonte acknowledged he didn’t expect a change.
"I didn’t know it was going to happen until it happened," he said.
"As far as the performance being off this season, all the Fords have not been quite there all year long."
Their results didn’t improve even with the crew chief change.
But Labonte knows that, even though they are not running for the championship in 2009. Using the final 12 races to learn and improve, the car will be key to finding success in 2010.
"You’re trying to build momentum for next year; you’re trying to find the right people to make your team better," he said.
While the season winds down, questions still remain about Labonte future with Hall of Fame Racing in 2010. Both his contract and his Ask.com sponsor deals go through 2009.
Right now, though, Labonte is focused on this year and showing signs of improvement with consistent finishes each week, then building this team from there.