Commentary

Bobby Labonte the latest feel-good story

Originally Published: March 2, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Life lessons, in the gutsy art of hanging in there, have been the best part of the early season.

Here's Jeff Gordon, winning at Phoenix, stifling his detractors, right on top of the bombshell that burst upon Daytona, from the long-down Wood Brothers and young Trevor Bayne.

[+] EnlargeBayne/Labonte
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesTrevor Bayne (21) could have done a lot worse than pair up with Bobby Labonte (47) for the stretch run of the Daytona 500.

There's another story out there, just beneath the surface, not as blatant but just as feel-good.

It is the pairing of 46-year-old Bobby Labonte, who had to scrape up rides with four different teams last season just to keep his streak of starts intact, with a one-car team that Marcos Ambrose quit (Marcos Ambrose, mind you) after last season.

Without this little team and its older driver, there would have been no Trevor Bayne story at Daytona. It was Labonte, running astoundingly well, who gave Bayne the enormous and decisive push on the final restart that got Bayne out front for keeps.

Labonte himself wound up fourth -- a relative bonanza for the one-car team owned by former NBA star and current ESPN NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty and his partners, Tad and Jodi Geschickter.

Like Bayne, Labonte couldn't manage another splash at Phoenix. But, where the young driver wrecked due to his own mistake and wound up 40th, the old driver got collected in a "big one" early in the race, and yet nursed his ill-steering Toyota to a 21st-place finish.

Granted, Labonte is trying for the Cup championship, whereas Bayne isn't. Coaxing the car home at Phoenix was enough to leave Labonte seventh in the standings. Admittedly this is very early, yet to see Bobby's Labonte's name in the top 10 at all is a flashback to a decade ago, when he was coming off the 2000 championship, still driving for Joe Gibbs and mentoring then-young Tony Stewart.

In between, Labonte had to do some serious hanging in, through three years with sinking Petty Enterprises and then bouncing from owner to owner these past two seasons.

"A lot of people have asked why we would hire Bobby and not go out and get some young guy," Daugherty said the other day. "I just had a good feeling about Bobby Labonte as the guy who could help our program continue to mature and be consistently competitive every week."

[+] EnlargeBobby Labonte
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images2000 Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte remains a fan favorite in the NASCAR garage.

Can the team hang in there, in the top 12 in points, long enough to make the Chase?

"I definitely think we have the driver who can do the job," Daugherty said. "Our equipment is good and it's very sound equipment."

"I do feel like we'll have some good races," Labonte told a teleconference Tuesday. "We're going to have some races not so good." The idea, Labonte knows from the title hunts with Gibbs, is "if we have a bad race not to let it affect us the weekend after that …"

With steady nerves, "We'll gain confidence, gain integrity in our team, we'll gain experience with our group and we'll get a little better as we go," Labonte continued.

"If we keep doing that, that's what counts toward the end of the year."

Dare they hope to win a race or two against all the big guns?

"I don't know if we'll get to Victory Lane, but I'm not going to say no," Daugherty said. "Because I'm impressed with Bobby Labonte -- have been my whole life. I think if the stars line up, who knows? Maybe we could go to a place like Atlanta, where he's really, really good [with six career wins, tied for third with Richard Petty behind Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough], or Charlotte, and rip one off if things line up right."

Win? The humble 47 car?

"Yeah, absolutely," Labonte said. "Everybody's got to have the stars aligned right every weekend [to win] no matter what."

Daugherty has done some serious hanging in there himself. Minority owners have come and gone from NASCAR. Julius Erving and Joe Washington, and Bob and Jackie Joyner Kersee, arrived enthusiastically and left disappointed.

Randy Moss hangs on in Trucks, but Daugherty remains the only African-American team owner at the Cup level, having slugged his way up through Trucks and Nationwide.

What gives Daugherty his resilience and persistence is his background: his lifelong love of NASCAR, learned in his upbringing in the mountains of western North Carolina, and on through his college basketball stardom with the UNC Tar Heels.

The mountain people of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge, of whatever ethnicity, are steeped in self-reliance and the individualism of the little guy.

A lot of people have asked why we would hire Bobby and not go out and get some young guy. I just had a good feeling about Bobby Labonte as the guy who could help our program continue to mature and be consistently competitive every week.

-- Brad Daugherty

In this era dominated by corporate multicar teams, might Daugherty's effort be something of a stand, a statement, for the one-car team and the aging veteran driver -- that is, for NASCAR as it used to be structured?

"That's what I'm all about," Daugherty said. "I grew up admiring the guys who worked their butts off and raced hard. And I just want to be one of those guys as long as I can."

But there's nothing na´ve about him.

"I'm smart enough to know that I'm not going to be able to last forever as a single-car entity," Daugherty said. "We have our relationship with Michael Waltrip. … We get the little smart remarks from people, like, 'the satellite team.' … We can use their technical stuff if we chose to. We do our stuff out of his shop because that makes it easier. All of our stuff comes from TRD of Toyota to their shop. That makes it cost-effective. We pay our bills."

"In effect it's a one-car team but in the competition part it's a three-car team," Labonte said, adding the MWR cars of Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann.

Eventually, Daugherty hopes to "maybe even start a second team with a young guy and hopefully Bobby will be there to guide this guy …

"But right now, we're gonna go try to win races with Bobby Labonte as a single-car team. Be as effective as we possibly can to fight those guys. It's hard. They line up, Hendrick, Roush, Childress, Penske, it's hard battling those guys every week. But it's kinda fun. Trying to go toe-to-toe with them is fun."

And another life lesson in hanging in there.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

ALSO SEE