Bobby Labonte (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
What next for Bobby Labonte?
It's been a ragged season for the man who won the 2000 NASCAR championship, and who is now in his 23rd season on the stock car tour, with 21 Cup wins.
But the durable racer, and physical fitness buff, is suddenly at a crossroads, at age 49.
Last weekend his amazing ironman run of consecutive tour starts ended at 704, after team owners Brad Daugherty and Tad Geschickter decided to put AJ Allmendinger in the car, to see if a change at the wheel might give the team a different perspective on the car itself.
Labonte's rep is as a smart, conservative racer who doesn't tear up equipment.
Allmendinger, on the other hand, has a more daring rep. He has rebounded well from last summer's suspension, did a good job for Roger Penske in the Indy 500, and he's currently trying to land a full-time Sprint Cup ride.
Allmendinger finished 19th for Daugherty/Geschickter at Michigan and 22nd for Daugherty at Kentucky. For the year Labonte, discounting those three engine failures (Bristol, Texas and Sonoma), has averaged 23rd place finishes. Daugherty and Geschickter are still winless on the Cup tour in their 4-1/2 years together.
Labonte is back in the car here.
But what next, well, that's unclear.
He's not happy about how things have been going. But Labonte, in his characteristic style, keeps it all low-keyed:
"You just take it one day at a time. I don't want to say 'No big deal,' because it is a big deal. But you can't make a big deal of it either, because at the end of the day it's really not that big of a deal."
Labonte, who didn't watch the Kentucky 400, last won on the tour in 2003, with Joe Gibbs. After the 2005 season, his 11th with Gibbs, Labonte moved on, next driving for Richard Petty for three years, finally signing on with Daugherty in 2011.
In that first race for Daugherty Labonte finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and played a key role in Trevor Bayne's surprise victory. However that's been the best finish the two have had in their 2-1/2 years together.
Team owner Brad Daugherty towers over everyone (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Just what's going on inside the team isn't clear, but clearly changes appear to be part of the new equation. And when the team owner puts another man at the wheel, odds are something is going to happen.
For the moment, though, Labonte is trying to keep cool about it all.
"We're just trying to get our team better," Labonte says. "We'll definitely know more as we go."
The last few weeks, he concedes, have been "tough...because I didn't think that was going to take place until later in the year."
The Kentucky swap was something of a surprise, since Labonte did a two-day test there with the team. "The best test we've been on.
"But we never got to put it to play.
"But there's a reason for everything...
"You just take it as it is and try to handle it as good as possible.
"I hate it happened. But if it helps our team out I think it's going to be a good thing. We've just got to make sure that it does."
So is Labonte now looking around for a new ride?
"I'm supportive of our team right now," he says.
AJ Allmendinger: on the comeback trail. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Bobby Hutchens, the team's competition director, says it's just tough playing this game as a one-team operation.
"We don't have anybody here in the garage to talk with about data, talk about the cars, talk about the engines, talk about the aero, and vehicle dynamics," Hutchens says. "Bringing AJ in was an opportunity for us to talk with someone who's driven several other team's cars, and give us a compare-and-contrast about where we are with our program.
"Think it was beneficial. We've had two good races with AJ so far. Think we learned some things. Hope Bobby will see that when we get to Loudon next week."
Is there a game plan for 2014? Hutchens demurs: "I'm just the competition side with the cars.
"You'll have to talk with Tad about the people and where he's headed there.
"I hope Bobby's here again. He's been a good friend of mine for a long time. We're trying desperately to put a good car under him every week...and unfortunately we struggled a few weeks doing that."
Of course Labonte and Hutchens aren't the only ones struggling this season. These new 2013s are so different and so aerodynamically sensitive that it takes an army of engineers to try to sort out the variables. And so far only Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have been able to do that on a regular basis.
Even the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman- Danica Patrick operation, with full Hendrick engineering, is struggling nearly every week.
"It's a tough sport, a very humbling sport, and that's the bottom line," Hutchens said. "We try to take a 5,000-foot picture every week of where we are and where we're headed and what we need to be doing.
"But from an engineering perspective it's very hard, because you're going against teams who have 60, 70 or 80 engineers, who can work on gadgets every week.
"When you're a small team, you have to pick your battles, and set your priorities. I try to look at the 10 things that could affect our performance the most and work on them.
"It's hard to attract the best personnel when you're in the position we are in the garage. That's not an excuse, it's just a fact of life.
"I've been in here a long time, like you, and seen a little bit of everything. And it's hard right now, from an engineering perspective, to be creative and still meet all the rules, and transfer that to speed out on the track.
"We've got a tight box (in rules), and it get's tighter every week. That's good in one respect, but I think it's hurt the racing in another respect.
"We don't have racing like we need, and we've got to work on that. These cars are way too aero dependent.
"We spend a lot of time and money in the wind tunnel, and we'll spend half our time at the track working on aero stuff -- to gain the most downforce and grip. It's almost a Chinese Puzzle. You have to pick and chose what's right for your team and what's right for your driver.
"That's why having AJ over, and getting a different perspective, can open up some avenues for Bobby as we go forward.
"What happens a lot in this garage is that so many of us are trying to play catch-up with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth that we get off-base and forget some basic principles."
Bobby Hutchens, now competition director for Bobby Labonte's team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)