It hurts to even ask the question. First and foremost, I am a fan, and I’ve always been a big Bobby Labonte fan. How many people remember his heyday in the number 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing? For that period of time he was right there with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. Like his brother Terry, he let his driving do a lot of the talking, but when he spoke, he had that cool, butterscotch smooth Texas drawl.
That was a while ago. It’s been too long. I think most of you won’t be surprised to learn that Bobby hasn’t won a race in almost ten years. He faded at Gibbs, went over to Petty Enterprises and endured what seemed like perpetual upheaval there, and once appeared to have a shot at moving to RCR; but he stayed, and then he’s been on an odyssey since that has included stops at the illustrious Hall of Fame Racing, TRG, JTG Daugherty, and once again, Labonte will click off some laps for Phoenix Racing.
Ugh. I shake my head. Sometimes I think maybe Labonte hung around too long a la Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. The numbers may seem to suggest Labonte’s career really took a hit with the onset of the Car of Tomorrow.
What do you do? There’s always hoping the former champ enjoys another day in the sun, reminiscent of Mark Martin circa 2010. I mean, the guy didn’t forget how to drive. Did he? Labonte’s not even 50 yet! Was Martin that much of an anomaly? Perhaps so.
You can’t blame him for wanting to hang around. He was once a champion and was good enough to win 21 races; that’s not nothing. The money’s good, and it’s hard to walk away from something you love to do. How long do you want to go? Just one more. Every athlete knows the story of this tune, and few are the ones who walk away on top like a Ray Lewis or a John Elway. Too many end up like Michael Jordan, Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays or Brett Favre. That’s hard to watch.
Sure, he may lost some of his edge, but come on, he’s been languishing in mediocre equipment ever since he left Gibbs. I also like AJ Allmendinger, and hope everything turns out for him, but I really don’t know if he’s going to make one iota of difference in that 47 car. Marcos Ambrose was the only one who could.
It will bear watching to see what happens. The 51 team at Phoenix may even be more mediocre than the 47, so one can’t overshoot the runway in terms of expectations at Michigan. On the plus side, Labonte was a stud once at MIS, so we’ll see.
Unfortunately, “was” is the operative term. Times change. Its inevitable, but quite frankly, sometimes change stinks.