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Bobby Labonte finally explains just what's been going on....

By Mike Mulhern

   Bobby Labonte's world has been in a whirl the past few weeks, and he is just now getting comfortable with his new NASCAR deal – a full-time ride with Ford's Doug Yates, and apparently hefty sponsorship support from a San Francisco-based internet company, Ask.com.
   And Tom Garfinkel, the man who has been heading the team the past two years and who helped put together the sponsorship that created the opportunity for partnership with Yates and Jack Roush, seems somewhat relieved too, to have the new deal done.
   The Garfinkel-Jeff Moorad team, bought two years ago from Roger Staubach, hasn't done that well under the Joe Gibbs' technological umbrella, and Garfinkel says
   "The buck stops with me, and certainly our results and performance last year weren't what we'd expected," Garfinkel said. "But Jeff and I knew when we came into this sport that it would take time.
   "We had no illusions that we would come in and take the sport by storm.
   "Certainly the results were more disappointing than we expected, but we think now we have a model that can help us improve our competitive position in the sport and help us grow."
   Have the team's problems been technical or organizational? There has been the sense that there have been, in one sense, too many cooks in the kitchen…and yet in another sense, not enough cooks, perhaps with Garfinkel and Moorad out in Phoenix and the team here in North Carolina.
   "Some of it was technical," Garfinkel says. "We had an engineering department and Gibbs had an engineering department and we didn't really exchange information. We got a set of equipment…and equipment changed on their end (from Chevrolet to Toyota), and we were trying to figure it out as we went along.
   "There were a lot of things there – in qualifying at Talladega, for example, we were six-tenths (of a second) off the Gibbs' cars. And at those tracks it's largely car-and-horsepower.
   "So while we enjoyed our relationship with Gibbs, I think we inherited a (business) model that was built three or four years ago when the sport was a lot different. Economically and technically.
  "We knew it would take time, and hopefully now we've put ourselves in a position to become more competitive."
   Labonte is in the same frame of mind. It's been a long time since he last won a NASCAR tour event, 2003. And the 2000-season champion hasn't been that competitive the last few years, with Richard Petty.
   Labonte signed a new four-year deal with Petty and then-partner Boston Ventures last summer….but then the U.S. economy soured, and Petty lost major sponsorship, and Petty by mid-December was still unable to offer Labonte any solid deal. So Labonte and Petty dissolved their contracts.
   That decision, Labonte says, opened the door for Petty to merge with George Gillett.
   "I knew they were going to do that….and I could have been part of that," Labonte said. "But I had signed a four-year contract with them, and that was just too much baggage for that deal."
   Labonte then began talking with Chip Ganassi about driving for his soon-to-be Chevrolet team. But Ganassi apparently didn't have solid sponsorship either. So when the Yates-Roush-Garfinkel opportunity opened up, Labonte quickly snapped it up.
   "This was an opportunity that offered a secure 'let's go racing for the year and be competitive,'" Labonte says.
   "I knew this was the place I needed to be."
   Those frantic days last week, making all the moves, were chaotic, Labonte admits: "It's a made-for-TV sit-com, horror movie and drama all in in one.
   "It was wild. Maybe eventually I can tell everyone. It was tough for a while.
   "I really respect Chip, and that was good. What a neat guy, to get to know him better.
   "But this opportunity here is second to none. It's all good. This is a great opportunity for me. And it's a secure opportunity for me. With the resources they have, and the people….I don't really want to set any goals today, but we want to win….and how much yet, we don't know yet.
  "I think they (Ganassi) were going to be okay (with sponsorship), but there were still some questions."
   Jim Safka, the CEO of sponsor Ask.com, says he is making a gamble in signing on as a NASCAR sponsor. No dollar figures were offered for the sponsorship, but it is estimated at around $12 million for 2009 for some 29 of the Sprint Cup tour's 36 events.  
   Safka conceded the weak U.S. economy has created "kind of a doom-and-gloom environment out there."
   But he says NASCAR does look like a good for his company's logo: "The first race I attended was this last year at Homestead, at the invitation of Tom and Jeff Moorad. And it was interesting.  
    "It was an extraordinary experience to see a race in person.
    "But one of the things I kept hearing backstage in the garages was that after the race there were going to be a lot of people laid off. So there was a little melancholy at the same time.  
   "Everybody has seen what's happened since, with this economic environment, and it really breaks my heart.
   "But I'm always a little bit contrarian -- my belief is when other folks are battening down the hatches, it's a good time to stick your head up above the foxhole and see where there might be some opportunities.  
   "I've been in a lot of sports marketing over the years, with the NFL and baseball, and in other programs with celebrities as well. But one of the things that became apparent about NASCAR is it's not just a sport – it's a lifestyle. And it's packed with emotion.  
   "From a marketing standpoint, that's gold: emotion is."
   However Safka offered the caveat: "In this economic time, it's not easy for anybody, it's not easy for us. So this is a big, big bet on our part. And the bet is that the fans will see us and recognize us and support us."


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