Pettys focused on regaining elite status

Updated: November 11, 2005, 6:03 PM ET
Associated Press

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Petty Enterprises is ready to take the next step toward returning to prominence in NASCAR's top stock car series.

The family owned team announced Friday it has signed 2000 NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte to drive the No. 43 Dodge, starting in 2006.

Labonte, who was released earlier this week from the final three years of a contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, replaces Jeff Green, who is leaving the team at the end of the current season. Labonte will race as a teammate to new boss Kyle Petty, who will keep driving the No. 45 Dodge.

Labonte will also join Robbie Loomis, who is leaving Hendrick Motorsports to become vice president of race operations for Petty.

The Petty team, an elite organization for years, led first by NASCAR pioneer and three-time champion Lee Petty and followed by his son, seven-time champion Richard Petty, has fallen on hard times in recent years and has not won a race since 1999.

But Kyle Petty, Richard's son, is hoping the addition of Labonte and Loomis could be the catalyst for some big, positive changes.

"With Robbie's help, and with these two working together, it will take Petty Enterprises to another level," Petty said. "Three or four years ago, we had a plan and started down it and it didn't work out like we wanted it to. Now, Robbie is in charge of everything and, hopefully, it will work out exactly like we want it to.

"And I'm excited to have Bobby as a teammate," he added. "Obviously, it's important to have somebody in the 43 car so we can grow together. It brings a huge amount of talent and experience to the seat, which, hopefully, will bring the 45 car up."

Labonte said he is as excited as his new boss and teammate.

"I think we think alike. We drive similar setups, I think. It feel like it's the coolest opportunity," Labonte said.

The 41-year-old Labonte has struggled at times since winning his title, with points finishes of sixth, 16th, eighth and 12th heading into this year. This season has been the worst, though, with Labonte heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway 25th in the standings, with only three top-five finishes and no wins.

Despite having job security with Gibbs, Labonte said he just felt it was time for a change. Then the opportunity to join the Petty team developed.

"Signs were telling me that this is what I needed to do," Labonte said. "It just happened.

"Now it's a matter of getting everything together, and we'll do that. Whether it will take one week or 10 weeks, I don't know the answer. But I know the enthusiasm is there to do it, and our goal is to do it, and heart is in this."

Loomis is excited, too.

"It's a huge challenge for us to get the [43] car back to Victory Lane, to get the car in the Chase, to get back to where I would love to see us win the championship," Loomis said. "Is it a reality next year? You've seen a lot of things happen in the sport and you look at it and ask: 'How'd that happen?'"

So long, pal
Series points leader Tony Stewart said Friday he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte had an emotional talk last week after Labonte told the team he would be leaving at the end of the season.

"We were both kind of laughing about it and hugging on each other about it," Stewart said. "It doesn't matter what team he goes to, we still view each other as teammates -- even after the end of the year."

But Stewart said he understands why his teammate of seven years is moving on.

"Only Bobby knows what is best for Bobby," he said. "Sometimes you can get yourself in a situation where you've been in one place so long that a change is good for both sides. I hate to see him go but, at the same time, I'm happy that he's doing something he wants to do."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press