Labonte's consecutive start streak to end
June 25, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
When the Sprint Cup Series takes the green flag Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, the starting field will be missing someone who’s been a fixture on the circuit since 1993.
Bobby Labonte confirmed Tuesday that he will not race this weekend, and therefore end a streak of 704 consecutive premier-series starts that stands as the third-longest in history. Ricky Rudd owns the longest ever at 788 starts, while Jeff Gordon holds the longest active streak at 705.
“It is disappointing the way it is happening,” Labonte wrote in a chat with fans on the website of his JTG Daugherty Racing team. “I have had a couple of offers this morning, but I have declined them because I don’t want anybody else that has an opportunity to do what I do, what they love, to have to sit on the sideline for my sake.”
The 2000 champion of NASCAR’s premier division, Labonte has not missed a start since the beginning of his full-time career in 1993. AJ Allmendinger is in Labonte’s usual No. 47 car for Saturday night’s event at Kentucky. JTG Daugherty announced three weeks ago that Allmendinger would pilot the No. 47 for five races as a comparative measure to help a team that ranked 27th in the Sprint Cup standings at that point.
"We probably need an alliance with another team or a teammate. That would be the start."
-- Bobby Labonte
Allmendinger also drove the No. 47 at Michigan, but Labonte landed a ride for that event in Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 car to keep his streak alive. Austin Dillon is competing in the No. 51 in this Saturday night's Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at Kentucky.
“Bobby is our guy for this season and we are focusing on making the car better for this season,” team co-owner Brad Daugherty wrote in the chat. “That is our focus. We don't look to next year until the end of this year, so right now we are doing everything we can to help Bobby Labonte do as best as he can this season.”
The 49-year-old Labonte was in the No. 47 this past weekend at Sonoma, and Daugherty confirmed the former champion would be back in the vehicle for next week’s event at Daytona. Allmendinger -- winner of the Nationwide Series race Saturday at Road America -- is expected to pilot the car for the Aug. 11 road course race at Watkins Glen, as well as two other races where the team is looking for sponsorship.
“I feel like AJ is a hell of a driver, I also know that what I feel in a race car is right,” Labonte wrote. “We had a great test in Kentucky and I am disappointed that I am not going. But as you move forward, you need to support our race team. Even though I might not agree, it is still going to benefit us to keep moving forward in a positive way.”
JTG Daugherty operated for several years as a satellite team to Toyota brethren Michael Waltrip Racing, but severed that relationship and moved into its own shop prior to last season. But life as a single-car team has been a struggle -- the No. 47 car placed 26th in owners’ points after last season, and currently sits 30th. Meanwhile, MWR placed two cars in the Chase last season, and won Sunday’s event with Martin Truex Jr.
“We have had conversations and we are trying to figure out what would be the best move for us going forward,” Daugherty said. “We came out of the MWR situation simply because we were all struggling. Obviously, they have fixed a lot over at MWR so someone like that may be a suitable partner again. We will have to see.”
Daugherty added the team is considering an alliance similar to the one it had before. “We moved out of MWR because it wasn't working,” he wrote. “But as we step back, we are competitive people, we want to race and run up front. The way this sport is going, you have to align yourself. So it is a great option going forward and we are looking at it very seriously.”
Labonte agreed. “We probably need an alliance with another team or a teammate,” he wrote. “That would be the start."
Labonte said he inquired about JTG Daugherty running a second car at Kentucky, but added the organization wouldn’t be able to do it. “One car is the limit of our capacity at this time,” he wrote. As a result, the 21-time race winner doesn’t plan on being at the track at all this weekend.
“Thanks for all of the support,” Labonte added. “We all have a passion for what we are doing, we all believe (in) what we are doing with the program, and we want to make sure we continue to represent all of the sponsors the right way.”
The goal, Daugherty said, is for Labonte to hopefully reap the benefits of whatever Allmendinger might discover by having a fresh opinion on the car. But what the future may hold for Labonte and the No. 47 remains unclear.
“We have not discussed 2014,” Daugherty wrote. “I am hoping we get this thing turned around and Bobby drives this car for a long time.”