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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Bobby Labonte

Bobby Labonte Age: 42
0 wins, 3 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s, 12 top 15’s
Avg Start: 21.6 Avg Finish: 22.0
Points: 21st Driver Rating: 67.9
#43 Cheerios Dodge Crew Chief: Paul Andrews

Despite 15 years of Cup experience everything was new for Bobby Labonte in 2006. After ten seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte got a fresh start with Petty Enterprises. He was one of several notable additions for PE in 2006. Champion crew chief Todd Parrott signed on as Labonte’s crew chief and Robbie Loomis rejoined Petty as General Manager. The moves gave the organization renewed credibility and also raised expectations for the season.

Petty Enterprises hadn’t been competitive for years. John Andretti was the last driver to score a top five back in 2001. Since that time, the company had a total of seven top tens. With a former Winston Cup winner, plus adding two Cup winning crew chiefs gave hope for drastic improvement.

For Labonte it was a chance to reenergize his career. Things weren’t bad at Gibbs, but it had grown stagnant. Petty offered a chance to contribute more than simply driving, but to help rebuild the most famous car in NASCAR.

Everyone at Petty warned that progress would be slow. It was still hard to not notice the immediate change. Labonte started 8th at the Daytona 500 and ran well until a crash with three laps left ruined his run. Then he started 4th at Atlanta and led 13 laps before his engine blew. The breakthrough finally came the next week at Bristol. Labonte deftly avoided trouble and finished 5th. He added top tens at Texas and Phoenix in the next few weeks.

Three top tens in the first eight races. It was the same number of top tens that Kyle Petty and Jeff Green combined for in 72 races in 2005. Even with swift success, it was hard to maintain the whole season. Labonte had more strong runs, but didn’t get another top ten until the July Pocono race.

In the middle of the season, Parrott announced he was leaving Petty to return to Yates Racing. It was a setback for Labonte’s team but it wouldn’t last long. Prior to the Chase, Kyle Petty hired Billy Wilburn to head the #45 team. This moved Paul Andrews to Labonte’s car. Andrews won a championship in 1992 with Alan Kulwicki.

Labonte and Andrews clicked during the Chase. In their second race together Labonte finished 7th at Dover. This began a very solid eight race stretch where Labonte’s average finish was 12.15 including two top 5’s and four top 10’s. The season ended with a crash at Homestead, his eighth DNF of the season. It was still one of the most successful seasons in the last decade for PE.

As impressive as Labonte was in his first season with Petty, the results could have been better. He suffered 8 DNF’s, including 3 engine failures. He also had a variety of bad luck ruin other runs. Crashes twice spoiled good finishes at Daytona. A bad transmission spoiled a top ten effort at Martinsville. Labonte also ran well at Richmond until his crew accidentally put the wrong sided tires on, wreaking havoc on the handling.

Team preparation is a large part of Cup racing and must be improved next year. On a team desperate for strong finishes they can’t afford these mental mistakes. Unfortunately they have less control over the engines. Leasing from Evernham guarantees good horsepower, but reliability has been an issue. Labonte lost three engines and Petty lost two during the season.

The progress of the #43 car was certainly the highlight of the season and brings greater optimism for 2007. There are still major obstacles for PE to remain competitive. Kyle Petty struggled with sponsorship last year and barely retained his spot in the top 35. Toyota’s introduction to Cup also brings additional big-budget teams that will raise the cost of competition.

Petty Enterprises made great strides in 2006, but they will have a large task in 2007. With the Car of Tomorrow arriving, will the team have enough personnel to cover both projects? It might be too large a task to hope for improvement. Maintaining their current status, especially in regards to the top 35 is very important. If the #45 falls outside the top 35 and begins missing races, that will also have a severe impact on Labonte’s team.

Labonte showed he can still drive in 2006. He is a legitimate threat to win at Martinsville and also excels at tracks like Atlanta, Pocono and Charlotte. Petty Enterprises hasn’t won a race since 1999. It is a long shot for Labonte to win a race in 2007, but more top fives and top tens would be a big success. A realistic goal is a top 20 finish in the points. It would mark the first time a Petty car finished in the top 20 since Andretti finished 17th in 1999.

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