Is Bobby Labonte’s NASCAR Career Coming to a Close?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Being a past champion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Bobby Labonte clearly knows how to drive a racecar. However, Labonte, 49, hasn’t visited victory lane since the season finale back in 2003 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now driving for JTG-Daugherty Racing, Labonte has been replaced for five races in favor of A.J. Allmendinger.

Labonte has had a horrific season. It isn’t the worst that he’s done, but it’s right near the low of all lows. With a team that has a sponsor for the majority of the season, as well as manufacturer support, one would expect that team to do well. In this case, the team hasn’t been even close to running up front since they stopped getting chassis’ from Michael Waltrip Racing.

Ever since the Generation-Six car came out, JTG-Daugherty Racing hasn’t been competitive. Their cars aren’t capable of running up front and it will show once Allmendinger climbs behind the wheel of the No. 47 Toyota. Allmendinger will step behind the wheel of the car starting at the Michigan International Speedway and will be back for four other races throughout the remainder of the season. The team claims that they aren’t permanently replacing Labonte who’s driven the car since 2011. In his time with the team, he’s only recorded one top-five finish, in his first start with them, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Allmendinger has been splitting the 2013 season between Penske Racing in the IZOD INDY Car Series and Phoenix Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, each on a part-time basis. He’s been running decent in NASCAR after getting suspended and later fired from his ride due to failing a drug test because he used Adderall. Now, after impressing many teams throughout the past few months, Allmendinger has been given the chance to share a ride with the former NASCAR champion. It can be a learning experience for both drivers as well as teams.

Labonte will be stepping behind the wheel of the No. 51 Chevrolet that Allmendinger, Regan Smith and Austin Dillon have been driving this year. It won’t be the first time Labonte will be driving for Phoenix Racing. A few years ago, back in 2010, Labonte drove for the team on a part-time basis as he split time between them and The Racer’s Group (TRG). Now, Labonte will be returning the team and will keep his consecutive starts streak alive, at least for now. It’s unknown if he’ll be in the car for the races that he’ll be replaced by Allmendinger, but for now, it’s presumed that will be the case.

However, at the age Labonte is, this may be a sign to call it quits. He’s getting older which is a turn-off for sponsors. Though the team fully supports him from what they say, they made it very clear that it’s easy to replace him. He’s on a year-by-year contract with JTG-Daugherty Racing, which means there won’t be any ugly lawsuits or anything like that. However, the team could receive a lot of criticism for getting rid of him just like Joe Gibbs Racing did when they replaced him with J.J. Yeley and we all know how that ended.

Even if the team wants Labonte to return, he probably realizes that he’s better off not running at the back of the pack for another year. If anything, he would be better off closing out his career in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with a powerhouse team. Though he hasn’t run a NASCAR Nationwide Series race since 2008, Labonte could probably contend for a few wins in that series. There’s no reason that Labonte should run at the back of the pack with a team that won’t provide him the opportunity to win when he clearly can still drive.

Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.

 


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