Bobby Labonte Out At Yates; A Champion In More Ways Than One

Lee FraserCorrespondent IAugust 31, 2009

CONCORD, NC - JANUARY 22:  Yates Racing owner Max Jones, driver Travis Kvapil, Paul Menard, Bobby Labonte, and owner Doug Yates pose during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe's Motor Speedway on January 22, 2009 at the Embassy Suites in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The picture above seemed like a match made in heaven. A veteran, former champion driver, with a veteran, former champion team, both looking to re-establish dominance again.

For those of you who haven't heard, Bobby Labonte will only run five of the remaining 12 races of 2009.

Roush Fenway Racing driver Erik Darnell will do the remaining seven. Darnell will run this week at Atlanta, then again at Louden, Kansas, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix, and the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Darnell will run under the Northern Tool & Equipment sponsorship, as well as Academy Sports & Outdoors. Labonte will run under the Ask.com and DLP HDTV sponsorship at Richmond, Dover, Fontana, Charlotte, and Martinsville.

Hall of Fame Racing owner Tom Garfinkel said that the Hall of Fame team will likely not have an alliance with Yates next season, however, they expect to have Labonte.

The points from the No. 96 will stay with Hall of Fame, and the No. 26 points will go to Darnell for 2010. Darnell will compete for Rookie of the Year in 2010, under the Yates Racing banner. Hall of Fame is in negotiations with Ask.com for 2010.

This is sad news for NASCAR fans.

Labonte is a true professional. He said, "This is a move that will be beneficial to Yates Racing surviving this difficult economic time."

Sometimes nice guys finish last. What do I mean by this?

In the beginning of 2009, Cheerios announced that they would not return to Petty Enterprises, that they would move on to Richard Childress Racing, and a new fourth team.

Cheerios clearly expected Labonte to follow them to Childress. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Labonte to get back to his winning ways, and as a Labonte fan, I was excited for Labonte's possible new ride.

But Bobby did the unexpected. He did what was morally correct and stayed with Petty Enterprises, signing a four-year extension with the Petty team, even without a sponsorship.

When Petty couldn't find sponsorship, he merged his team with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and they became a four-car operation.

Labonte was released, very late in the offseason, and was without a ride in mid-January.

Then this deal came up.

Ask.com, a new sponsor, was looking to come into the sport, and was looking for a recognizable name to promote their website. Labonte jumped at the opportunity, and expected to be really good for 2009. But it hasn't been the best of years for Bobby, but it was not his fault.

Hall of Fame is struggling, and Ford Racing is too.

The decision today, is strictly for business, not performance.

Labonte has handled every situation he's ever had in his career the most professional way anybody could.

In Pocono Raceway in 1993, Bobby was a rookie, driving the No. 22 Maxwell House Ford, for Bill Davis Racing.

I was five years old, and looked at these drivers as heroes.

There was Bobby, signing autographs during qualifying. I knew every driver in the sport, and I saw Bobby sitting there. I walked up and my face glowed with excitement. I saw him and said, "Hey, you're Bobby Labonte, Terry's brother!" He was just excited I knew who he was, and was the nicest guy in the world.

At the end, after about a 10 minute conversation, I said, "Hey Bobby, you know what I say to my brother?" He said, "No, what?" I said, "See ya' later alligator!" Bobby replied, "In a while crocodile!"

That made my day.

As a kid, growing up in New Jersey, loving the Yankees, and meeting some of the players, I never had anyone treat me with more grace and respect.

I became a race fan forever that day.

That's what Bobby Labonte means to this sport.

Another encounter I had with him came 16 years later, before this year's Daytona 500.

Bobby was signing autographs in Wal-Mart, for Coca-Cola. I went in now as a 20-year-old man, still shaking to see my hero. After about an hour wait, I finally got to see Bobby.

He was tired, after a long day of practice, and signing autographs. He greeted me with a smile. I told him the story of how he made me a race fan forever that day in 1993. He was excited. He smiled, and told me that I made his day.

And then, he thanked me! I said, "For what?" He said, "For coming out today, thanks alot," like I did something.

This is the true professional Bobby Labonte is.

He still has the fire, and the talent, and the want to get into a competitive ride, and put it in victory lane, even if he will be 47-years-old next year.

Bobby won't be without a ride, sponsor, or anything for long. Bobby will probably even get a ride for Atlanta.

This is a sad day in NASCAR.

I just hope Labonte can get back to his winning ways once again, with what ever comes his way for 2010.

Bobby's already won with the fans multiple times in this sport—and I don't mean on the track—and Bobby will win again, no matter what!


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