- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Former Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte will drive the No. 96 car for Yates Racing.
Hall of Fame Racing announced earlier in the day that it has aligned itself with Yates Racing to run the 96 for the entire Sprint Cup season. Labonte, who had been in discussions with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing for the No. 8 car, will be the driver as part of a three-car operation. His car will be sponsored by Ask.com for the first 18 races of the season, starting with the Daytona 500, with an option to buy more as the year goes on.
Ask also signed on as "the official search engine of NASCAR," in two separate deals that bring new money into NASCAR at a time most of the industry is scouring the crumbling economic market for funding. Ask is also exploring marketing, at-track displays and media opportunities with various track operators.
"My feeling was, there's no better time to come in than now because there's less clutter," said Ask CEO Jim Safka to The Associated Press. "In our research, NASCAR fans really understand and support the sponsors. As others are pulling out, my hope is it gives Ask.com a better chance to earn their respect and their business.
"When other people batten down the hatches, I think it's a good opportunity to step on the gas pedal."
Tom Garfinkel, co-owner of Hall of Fame Racing, said Ask's management team has proposed various new marketing ideas that will be new to NASCAR.
Labonte won the 2000 title at Joe Gibbs Racing. He left the organization after the 2005 season to drive the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises and signed an extension last season after majority interest in the company was sold to Boston Ventures.
He asked for his release after the season with the team struggling to find a sponsor and planning to merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
"In a time like this, it's great to see a sponsor come in with technology and
ideas that will help all of the competitors in NASCAR and enhance the
experience for all of our fans, no matter which driver or team they
cheer for," Lebonte said of the deal.
HOF operated in 2008 as a single-car operation aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. It will operate this season out of the Yates facility in Concord, N.C., as a three-car Ford operation.
Yates Racing, which has a partnership with Roush Fenway Racing, announced last season that Paul Menard would drive the No. 98. Travis Kvapil  and David Gilliland  drove for Yates last season, but sources said neither has been guaranteed a ride in 2009.
"This partnership with Hall of Fame is a great stepping stone for the Yates organization," Max Jones, the co-owner and general manager of Yates Racing, said in a statement regarding the merger. "We are able to continue the expansion of our shop and field another Sprint Cup entry.''
Jeff Moorad and Garfinkel will remain co-owners of HOF, which was on the brink of folding without sponsorship out of its Cornelius, N.C., shop.
"Jeff and I knew it would take time to construct the right model to improve our competitive position in the sport and we think we've come a long way to achieving that through our association with Yates Racing," Garfinkel said.
This is the latest in a series of mergers under tough economic times. Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises announced last week they were merging into a four-car team. Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing announced late last year they were merging into a four-car operation, although it could be primarily a three-car operation without full funding for a fourth team.
Officials at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing could not be reached for comment on what they will do. Aric Almirola had been slated for the No. 8 last season when it was announced Mark Martin was leaving for Hendrick Motorsports and remains a candidate for that ride.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Hall of Fame Racing has aligned itself with Yates Racing to run the No. 96 car for the entire Sprint Cup season.