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Labonte focused on improvement, not retirement

NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Bobby Labonte didn't even watch the race.

"I was driving somewhere," he said, "so I really didn't get to."

It would've been understandable had Labonte not had the stomach for it, given that last week saw his streak of 704 consecutive Sprint Cup Series starts come to an end. While AJ Allmendinger drove the No. 47 car at Kentucky Speedway for a JTG Daugherty Racing team that entered the event 30th in owners' points, Labonte was far from the track experiencing his first idle race weekend since 1992.

"I ended up staying busy doing something," Labonte said Thursday. "It wasn't too bad. Wasn't what I thought I'd be doing, but it worked out."

Labonte is back in the No. 47 this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, but his streak -- which had been the second-longest active run behind Jeff Gordon's now 706, and third-longest all-time to Ricky Rudd's record 788 -- is history. Prior to Kentucky, the last premier-series race without Labonte was the 1992 finale at Atlanta, before he landed his first full-time ride.

Although Allmendinger also piloted the No. 47 car at Michigan two weeks earlier, Labonte kept his streak alive by driving James Finch's No. 51 Chevrolet -- a one-time concession allowed by Toyota, which backs his regular ride. Allmendinger will also likely drive the JTG Daugherty entry at Watkins Glen, and potentially two other events where the team is still without sponsorship.

In the meantime, Labonte is left to hope all the driver shuffling will pay off for a single-car program that hasn't finished better than 15th all season. JTG Daugherty used to be a satellite team of Michael Waltrip Racing, but went off on its own prior to last year. Allmendinger finished 22nd at Kentucky, where Labonte said the No. 47 car used a new engine package and a setup different from one the team tried at a test on the 1.5-mile track.

Meanwhile, Labonte experienced the end of a streak that had been 21 years in the making.

"You really just take it as it is, and try to handle it as good as possible," he said. "You hate that it happened. You wish that it wouldn't have happened. But if it helps our race team out, then it's going to be as good thing. We've just got to make sure it does."

A man of few words even in the best of circumstances, Labonte didn't go into detail about how he spent last weekend. "I was off. Evidently," he deadpanned. But it's clear the consecutive-race streak meant something to a driver who's earned 21 victories on NASCAR's premier circuit, his most recent coming at Homestead in the final race of the 2003 campaign.

"Got to start a new one now, I guess," Labonte said. "You know it's going to end at some point in time, but I was really looking forward to going to Kentucky. We had a great two-day test there, the best test we've had. The only test we've been on other than Charlotte this year. So that was good. But didn't never get to put it to play. You hate that happened, but there's a reason for everything."

Asked about next season, Labonte said he's still "supportive" of his current race team, co-owned by Tad Geschickter and Brad Daugherty. "Tad and I, we've talked about racing the 47 car for a long time," he said. And how much longer does he want to race? "I don't know that's a question I can really answer," he added.

And yet at 49, with his consecutive-race streak behind him and his last victory nearly a decade in the rearview mirror, Labonte isn't unaware that some wonder how much longer he'll strap himself inside a race car. He likes to think that time is later than it is sooner, particularly if his race team can get a handle on whatever may be holding it back.

"You'd like to think that if we can make some things right, we can make some good success out of it," he said. "You try not to think about (retirement), because you don't want to."

And clearly, he doesn't want to. Although Labonte will admit that being uncompetitive in the car can sting as badly as not being in it all, he still has trouble envisioning himself anywhere else. There will be a time, he said, when he won't want to do this anymore. Now is not that time. And until it arrives, he's going to continue to compete.

"Racers love to race," he said. "I'd be lying to you if I said there weren't days where I said, 'What am I doing?' But then there's days I go, 'What the heck? Why would I think that?' You go through that. Everybody goes through that. I was watching a special the other night on TV about (women's soccer) ? and they were all saying a lot of the same things -- this is my last year, this is my last year, this year. They said it over and over again, but they always worked hard and they always made it happen. You'll decide whenever that decision (comes), I suppose. You're just thankful for what you've got and what you do over what you can't do."

Besides, Labonte said, he's not really certain what he might do once his competitive days are over. For now, he's still passionate about driving the car.

"You really don't have any promises for tomorrow. Whatever happens happens, you just better be happy and be ready for it," he said. "I'd love to say that I'd be happy sitting on the beach, but that might not make me happy. I'd love to be happy sitting on a pit box, but that might not make me happy.  I'm sitting in a race car now, and that's my focus, and that's what I want to do. Until somebody or someone else tells me different, you enjoy what you enjoy."

And one week off can't change that.

"You take it one day at a time, take it one step at a time," Labonte said. " Last weekend's over, and we'll start over this weekend. I can tell you this -- there's no way I'm going to go to 704 again."

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