Passion still burns for Bobby Labonte

3/18/2010 - NASCAR

It's not uncommon these days that Bobby Labonte wakes in the morning and pulls a "Life Is Good" T-shirt out of the drawer and over his salt-and-pepper head. He wears them often these days.

They're a billboard of sorts, a personal reminder of how well it's gone for him during a 20-year run at the top of NASCAR, and hope for what could still be out there for him.

His priorities have changed a bit over the past several years. Age and experience do that to a man. It's inevitable, really, once years pile up and reflection begins. Likewise, it's quite difficult -- impossible for most -- to respect the blessing, and fickleness, of success while it's happening.

In the moment, you don't often think about how good you have it. You just have it. It's just how it is. It's what you know.

Then one day, how it is isn't how it was. And suddenly it hits you: Man, I had it good. That's one reason Mark Martin is so dadgum giddy all the time. He got another shot.

"Now it's like you want it to happen more than ever professionally, more now than then you want to [excel], and it becomes a harder pill to swallow because you're not," said the 45-year-old Labonte. "Personally, times change, kids grow up and you look at things differently, wiser.

"It's one of those things where it's more precious to do what you're doing now than it was then. You respect more, now, what you were able to do."

Fact is, only a handful of drivers have Labonte's credentials. During the nine seasons between 1995 and 2003, he won 21 races and finished among the top 10 in points seven times, including winning the 2000 Cup championship.

Even fans, thanks to Jimmie Johnson's current dominance, lose sight of how difficult it really is to achieve excellence. In NASCAR's 60-plus years, 177 drivers have at least one victory at the Cup level. Only 32 of them have as many as Bobby Labonte (21).

"Back then your goals were happening, so you were just doing it," Labonte continued. "It's definitely hard to grasp. It's harder to grasp in the middle of doing it than when you're not.

"But by the way, I'm still trying to accomplish a lot. So I think it's easier to look back later on than when you're in the middle of it, because you can't look back; you're still looking forward."

It would be easy to infer that Labonte's heyday is over, that the competitive drive is gone. He hasn't won since '03, after all, and since he left Joe Gibbs Racing late in the 2005 season he has hopped around from Petty Enterprises to Hall of Fame Racing to, now, TRG Motorsports.

The 2006 move to Petty, to drive the famous 43, was promising despite the organization's competitive struggles. Robbie Loomis, too, had departed Hendrick Motorsports and ventured to Petty to oversee competition. It never materialized as hoped.

In May 2008, Labonte signed a four-year extension with Petty. By December he was gone from the team.

"I kind of got the [rug] pulled out from under my legs," he said. "But it was about what I figured it would be."

He left it at that.

After Petty he was in limbo for a while, rumored strongly to be headed to Ganassi or possibly Childress. But he settled at Hall of Fame, which also seemed a decent enough opportunity. The organization had aligned with Yates Racing, and thereby Roush Fenway Racing, and Todd Parrott would be his crew chief.

That didn't work out either, and Labonte again was left to wonder: What now?

Enter TRG Motorsports, a program in its infancy, albeit one with big plans. Labonte ran seven of the final 12 races in 2009 for TRG, and ultimately signed on to drive full-time for the team this year.

Again, it's promising. During the offseason, TRG signed an agreement with Richard Childress Racing, which provides engines, some cars and technical information. And they use a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing.

The startup program is improving steadily. Labonte mentions there have been setbacks, but reflects on the industry standard as an example that it can be done.

"Remember, not everybody started off on top," he said. "I love the story about Rick Hendrick and Geoff Bodine at Martinsville [in 1984]. They couldn't afford to go. But they went, and Geoff wins the race. Now look at them. I love that story.

"And look at [Childress]. You had [Dale] Earnhardt -- he said, 'Dude, your stuff ain't good enough.' He went and drove for Bud Moore a couple years, came back and now, holy cow, what a success story.

"Everybody goes through that. That's where TRG wants to go. They'll have that same story someday. 'Remember that time we were a one-car team, and did this, then that? Now look at us.' That's their goal."

That was a different time. Today's NASCAR presents a far steeper hill to climb. But TRG is managing, and Labonte is a crucial element of the effort.

"Having someone with Bobby's experience and pedigree really adds to all aspects of our TRG Motorsports NASCAR program," said team owner Kevin Buckler. "First off, it takes so much to be a series champion, and that's a huge accomplishment and accolade, and we're proud to have Bobby as part of our team.

"Also, with his level of experience in the car, on the track and at the specific tracks where we race, he adds value in terms of our long-term view of what we're doing. He has a cool head, and he's a cool guy and we're really glad he's on board."

Labonte's easy demeanor can be deceiving. The competitive fire burns hotter than a smolder. He may be driving for a program in its infancy, and may not be threatening for wins right now -- he's 30th in the Cup standings, and his best 2010 finish is a 21st in the Daytona 500.

But he ain't done.

I really feel in my heart that I can win races and be up front. I don't feel that I've lost a step.

-- Bobby Labonte

"I really feel in my heart that I can win races and be up front," Labonte said. "I don't feel that I've lost a step.

"I don't know that, professionally, your goals change. I don't think they do. If you're doing this, you still have the same goal: Win on Sunday. You want to be competitive, lead laps, win poles."

That's still the goal? Even now?

"That's still the goal. It's the only goal," he continued. "Some people have different goals, but if your mission is to run every lap, then your goal is still the same as it was when you started. Win."

Labonte notes that he's in the best shape of his life, and ran a half-marathon in December. And for motivation he needs look no further than Martin and Jeff Burton. They're in his age bracket and competing at a championship level. Fact is, Labonte has something they don't -- a Cup.

He'd like to make a run at another one. But if not, he has no regrets.

"Jimmie Johnson might be the only one different, but I bet almost everybody scratches their heads at times and says, 'Man, I wish I'd done that different.' But I don't know that you can make that decision 100 percent," he said. "You can't have everything when you're making those decisions throughout your career. How can you know what's right and what's wrong at the time?

"The cards might be dealt to you differently than everybody else. That's my opinion. At this point, [I] don't take small setbacks so personally or seriously. I used to fly off the handle 10 years ago. Well, what'd that get you? In trouble? I don't do that so much anymore."

Life is good.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.