COMMENTARY | The #47 car of JTG Daugherty Racing, to be kind, has been struggling in 2013 in the Cup series. Competitive on occasion in past years, this year the team has hardly been mentioned. Driver Bobby Labonte, a Cup champion in 2000, is down to 27th in points, one spot ahead of rookie Danica Patrick, who is basically learning the ropes this year. If a champion like Labonte is struggling this bad, that's a sign something is seriously wrong.
In comes Dinger to the rescue, perhaps. Yes, A.J. Allmendinger, who wondered what his next step would be after a disastrous turn for Roger Penske in Indycar races in Detroit now has a nice opportunity in front of him. He'll run several Cup races (Michigan, Watkins Glen and possible three others) in the #47 car and see if he can help figure out why the #47 team is struggling so much with the Gen 6 car.
(Side note: In a bit of irony, Allmendinger was pulled from his Red Bull ride in 2008 for five races, when Mike Skinner was brought in to help out the team. At the end of 2008, things weren't much better and Dinger moved on to Richard Petty Motorsports)
Tad Geschickter, co-owner of the #47 car in the Cup series, say it's just an effort get a different driver's take on the car and what it can do, then try to get Labonte running better and keep the sponsors happy.
"At the end of the day, the name of the game is to provide value to our sponsors," Geschickter said. "We are realistic about our position in the garage as a single-car operation. However, we have always been able to punch above our weight to deliver a great value to our partners on and off the track. We have not been doing that with the new car and this move is an additional step in determining what areas we need to work on to improve our performance."
Brad Daugherty added that: "Bobby is still our guy"
That sounds nice and all, but in reality Labonte might be seeing the beginning of the end of his time with the team.
What will happen with Dinger helping out? Let's look at this scenario: What if Dinger does an excellent job and outperforms Labonte? It won't be hard, as Labonte has zero top-10s this season and only two finishes better than 20th all season (15th at Daytona and 19th at Richmond). What sense does it make to go back to using Bobby Labonte in the car? They want to succeed, no doubt, so removing someone who helps improve performance doesn't make much sense to me.
If there are contractual issues for the rest of 2013, I understand that, but looking to the future, you don't want to stick with Labonte in this scenario. You want to go with someone who can get your team improving year over year, and that would mean choosing Allmendinger (or someone else) for 2014 and beyond if he earns the spot with his performances.
Let's be honest: Bobby Labonte is pretty much ready to retire. His career trajectory shoots way up, peaking with a Cup title in 2000 (he was among the dominant cars in 1999 and 2000), and has been steadily plummeting since. Perhaps he still enjoys racing, and if so he can continue to do so as long as he has someone willing to give him a ride. But if the cars are this bad, I doubt he's having too much fun in his current ride. The 49-year-old has proven through his three-decade career (his first Nationwide race was in 1982 as a teenager) that he is a champion-caliber driver, and has nothing left to prove.
I hope A.J. Allmendinger does well in his time driving the #47 car, and in the process earns himself a ride for 2014.
And I hope Bobby Labonte sees this as an opportunity to exit gracefully from the Cup series, as his days of running toward the front are pretty much over. Those of us who remember the painful last years of all-time greats like Darrell Waltrip and even Richard Petty - who were so desperate to keep racing they settled for terrible cars and were basically field-fillers - know that the best thing Bobby Labonte can do for his legacy is to say goodbye before it gets too bad.
I've seen Bobby Labonte do great things in a racecar and his accomplishments will be remembered and appreciated, but his time to shine is long past. No one would think less of him if he decided to call it a career after 2013.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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