In most years, Bobby Labonte’s options would appear to be unlimited. The phone would be ringing, offers would be made. But even the most casual fan of the sport has come to realize that this isn’t most years.
Good rides, and potential good rides, are few and far between. The list of talented drivers standing in the unemployment line is long.
The list of fully sponsored, fulltime rides a short one. It’s a disheartening combination, even for a guy who has reached the top of his profession.
At 44, Labonte may no longer be in the prime of his driving career, but he’s far from finished. His resume includes 21 Cup wins and the 2000 NASCAR Cup championship, a priceless piece of hardware that can practically guarantee a driver a spot in the field. While re-entering the job market this late in the year may mean the list of potential new employers isn’t quite as long, Labonte would still appear to be at the top of just about any team owner’s wish list.
It’s a situation that the Corpus Christi, Texas, native never saw coming. Not when he made the move to Petty Enterprises three years ago after a successful stint at Joe Gibbs Racing. Not even after the investment group Boston Ventures purchased a majority interest in the team earlier this year.
But when the Boston Ventures move failed to stop the Petty organization’s freefall, Labonte was left with no other choice but to seek
Now, there is talk of a possible merger between Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports. It’s a deal that may or may not happen. Either way, Labonte now says he didn’t feel it was in his best interest to remain.
“It was going to be tough for them to be able to go on like they had planned,” Labonte said Dec. 16. “The scenarios that were set out in front of me and [with] the contract that I had, there were a lot of implications .. .”
It was, he said, “probably just best to agree to shake hands and part ways.”
And so Labonte’s left to look for work elsewhere, leaving with no ill feelings over a move that didn’t pan out. Boston Ventures, he says, isn’t to blame. Petty Enterprises isn’t to blame. A plan that looked good on paper in the spring of 2008 turned sour with the economic realities of the fall.
“If [Boston Ventures] had come in … at the same time I did, three years ago, when the economy was great, it was an easier step at that point in time to get better and to grow,” Labonte says. “Unfortunately, you couldn’t ask for a worst-case scenario. [It was] the perfect storm for them.
“I think their desire and heart was in it; they were adamant about trying to make it happen.”
Labonte says he’s unsure of where he will land, but he has no desire to step back and look for opportunities outside of NASCAR’s Cup
series, where he’s made his living since 1993,
There has been talk of a possible move to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, a merger that’s still being fleshed out, but Labonte says there are no done deals, no contracts signed.
“I’m not sure, but I think everyone had me leaving the Pettys to go to the 41 [of Earnhardt Ganassi],” he says. “Well, I left the Pettys not really having anything, because I needed to make myself available. I know December wasn’t the prime time – September would have been better – but I couldn’t make that work.
“… I haven’t signed anything. There are talks happening, but that’s not happened yet. It could happen …, but it might not.”
He doesn’t want to think about competing somewhere other than Cup in 2009. And he says he still has plenty to offer to the right organization.
“I’m not sitting here telling you today, ‘Well, if I don’t get a ride, that’s fine.’ That’s not fine” he says. “I’m not sleeping well at night
because I don’t have one. I want to race, and I want to make sure that I can be in the best position that I can be in. I’m confident that I can bring a lot to the table, whether it’s value for a team for a sponsor or ability or consistency.
And while his previous success in the series is certainly noteworthy, Labonte says it’s not the entire package.
The selling point, “is hopefully what’s in front of me, what can be done.”
All that’s missing, it seems, is the opportunity — for Labonte and a long list of others.