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Keeping Pace

Labonte’s Class Act Put Him Above The Sponsorship-Search Fray

Mid- to late summer is always a period of transition in NASCAR. This is the time when drivers change teams, gain and lose sponsors, maybe consider having a serious conversation with a different auto manufacturer. Harvick? Staying. Keselowski? Going.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

Of all the pithy comments my grandmother made over the years, one in particular stands out in my mind.

“I can tell that I’m getting old,” she said, “because all my friends are dying.”

I brushed it off as maudlin at the time, but now I’m beginning to understand that sentiment a little better.

I can tell that I’m getting old, because all my friends are retiring. Thank goodness for the television broadcasting business. Without it, my former-driver withdrawal might well have been terminal.

Mid- to late summer is always a period of transition in NASCAR. This is the time when drivers change teams, gain and lose sponsors, maybe consider having a serious conversation with a different auto manufacturer. Harvick? Staying. Keselowski? Going.

It’s kind of fun to watch in a way, this intricate game of chess where all the pieces are jousting knights, knocking one another out of the way to reach the one spot they all want to occupy.

But once in a while, the game gets out of hand and something happens that just makes you sadly shake your head. That was the effect of a recent announcement concerning Bobby Labonte.

Labonte, who has been driving the No. 96 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing Ford this season, was relieved of his driving duties for seven of the year’s remaining races. His sponsorship money ran out, and he will now share seat time with Roush Fenway driver Erik Darnell, who has been racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

We’re all adults here, and we have to be realistic about things. Money is tight, business is business, and teams have to do whatever it takes to get those cars out on the racetrack every weekend. Everyone understands this.

Still, when you have watched and cheered for and admired someone for so many years, it is difficult to see them struggle, even a little bit.

Funny, friendly and very approachable, Labonte is a great example of a utility player, the kind of guy who always comes through. Whatever the sport has asked of him, he has delivered. He personifies all the traits that make a great athlete: consistency, patience, and success.

Some athletes are like shooting stars. They make a spectacular impression in the early going, and can even be dazzling at times, but can’t maintain that brilliance over time. They lack consistency.

Here’s a statistic for you. Going into the race at Atlanta on August 6, Labonte had a streak of 568 consecutive starts. Five hundred sixty-eight green flags in a row, and he saw every one of them from behind the wheel of a race car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. How’s that for dependability?

NFL quarterback Brett Favre has been taking some heat lately for his unwillingness to take part in the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp. Far be it from me to put words in the mouth of a future Hall of Famer, but Favre apparently feels he has served his time, paid his dues, and is therefore entitled to a few extra privileges along the way.

But the bottom line is that he didn’t want to do the work required for the job.

Bobby Labonte, on the other hand, rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty. He raced quarter-midgets and go-karts, and learned as much as he could about stock cars while working as a fabricator on his brother Terry’s cars.

He scraped together enough money to enter a car he owned in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Martinsville in 1985, finishing 30th and bringing home a whopping $220 for his efforts. By 1990, he finally managed to start his own team, and raced in the Nationwide Series full-time.

To keep going when the going is hard and slow … that’s patience. But it does pay off. The following season, Labonte won the Nationwide Series championship.

Another quarterback, Dan Marino, is touted as one of the best to ever play the game of football. But Marino’s name comes with the dreaded asterisk; any discussion about his career includes the comment, “He never won a Super Bowl.” It is unfortunate, and maybe even a little unfair, but in sports, championships are the yardstick of success.

In 1993, Labonte finally made it to the big league – the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He drove for Bill Davis Racing, and then picked up his first career win in 1995 after moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. He broke a shoulder at Darlington in 1999, but started the race anyway.

And in 2000, he won four races, led the point standings for 25 weeks, and took home the title of champion.

Billionaire industrialist J. Paul Getty said the formula for success was to rise early, work hard, and strike oil. That’s just a high-dollar way of saying that a combination of luck and effort is required to achieve the ultimate goal.

Bobby Labonte was out of work for about 15 minutes. He will drive for TRG Motorsports in the seven races he will miss for Yates this season.

As for his future prospects, who knows? Ideally, he will enjoy a few more respectable seasons of racing, then step away from the wheel to go wherever his new dreams might take him. He has already more than proven that he knows how to get there.

One thing is certain. Bobby Labonte is a class act to follow.

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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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