Sunday, June 16, 2013

CUP: Bobby Labonte’s Reunion With Phoenix Racing Ends With Early Crash

SOURCE: Bobby Labonte's Facebook Page
Bobby Labonte picked up the 12th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at the Michigan International Speedway when his unsponsored #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet was involved in a two-car accident after he completed 5 of the race’s 200 laps.

The finish was Labonte’s first of 2013.  It was also the first last-place run for both Labonte and Phoenix Racing since 2010, when Labonte trailed the field in the team’s #09 C&J Energy Services Chevrolet after he completed 197 laps of the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville.

Following his most recent start for Phoenix Racing - a 22nd-place finish in the 2010 finale at Homestead - Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, moved to JTG-Daugherty Racing to replace Marcos Ambrose as driver of their #47 Toyotas.  The union paid dividends in their first-ever race, turning in a stunning 4th-place finish in the 2011 Daytona 500, his first Top Five finish in nearly two years.

Although Labonte has yet to miss a race since his third career start in the 1993 Daytona 500, now 702 races ago, he and JTG have yet to score another Top Five, and he has racked up only three Top Tens.  His winless streak still extends back to the 2003 Ford 400 at Homestead, his final win in the #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet for longtime car owner Joe Gibbs.  Labonte remains a fan favorite, most recently earning the Fan Vote into the 2012 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Challenge at Charlotte.

So far in 2013, Labonte’s best finish has again been in the Daytona 500, where he came home 15th.  In the thirteen races since, he’s finished out of the Top 20 in all but two of those starts, leaving him 27th in the point standings.  Heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan, the decision was made to reunite Labonte with Phoenix Racing for one race so the team could evaluate its performance.  A.J. Allmendinger, back from his runs in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and a four-time starter with Phoenix in 2013, took control of the #47.

Phoenix Racing, one of the last veteran single-car teams, has been a pleasant surprise this season.  Allmendinger, Regan Smith, and Austin Dillon shared the ride during the first fourteen races this season.  Smith, the current Nationwide Series point leader, turned in the best finishes at Talladega and the Daytona 500, coming home 6th and 7th, respectively.  Allmendinger has finished no worse than 16th in all but one of his four starts, coming home 11th at Phoenix and contending for the win late at Richmond.  Austin Dillon’s best finish remains a 21st at Las Vegas, but has yet to suffer a DNF with the team.  In the Nationwide Series, the team was also in contention to win both restrictor-plate races, leading on the final lap with Smith and Kurt Busch.

Despite Phoenix’s success, sponsorship has been hard to come by, and team owner James Finch has announced that the team will cease operations after the race at Indianapolis next month.  Finch, who has fielded NASCAR entries since the late 1980s, has been on the verge of shutting down his team several times since longtime sponsor Miccosukee Gaming & Resorts pulled their funding right before the 2010 season.  Ironically, this was just months after Brad Keselowski scored the team’s first - and so far, only - Cup Series win at Talladega.

At Michigan, Labonte surprised with a 20th-fastest lap in qualifying at a speed of 199.358 mph.  It was not only Labonte’s first top-twenty start of the year, but his best start since Kansas in June of 2011.  At the start of the race, Labonte was hanging near the middle of the field, awaiting the first competition caution on Lap 20, when his car suddenly broke loose exiting Turn 2.  Labonte slid up the track and collected fellow 1993 Rookie of the Year contender Jeff Gordon, who was unable to escape up high.

Scoring made it appear that Gordon would earn his sixth career last-place finish, his first since Texas in 2008.  However, Gordon returned to the track many laps down with a new front clip bolted to the front of his #24.  Gordon managed to complete 52 laps, shuffling him past Labonte and three others on his way to a 39th-place finish.

Finishing 42nd on Sunday was two-time and defending LASTCAR Cup Champion Michael McDowell.  McDowell started 30th and, after staying out during the competition caution, inherited the lead for a lap.  It appeared he would attempt to run at the front of the pack, yet he pulled to the apron just seconds before the green flag.  He parked his car less than ten laps later.

Finishing 41st was Mike Bliss.  After a one-week hiatus, he returned to driving the same #19 Plinker Tactical Toyota that Jason Leffler finished 43rd with at Pocono three days before Leffler’s fatal crash in a sprint car race.  Though Bliss’ name was on the top of the windshield, Leffler’s “LefTURN” decals remained on both sides of the roof.

One lap before the start, Bliss’ spotter said “On behalf of Humphrey-Smith Racing, we’d like to thank Embassy Suites, Plinker Tactical, and all the fans that make this possible.  Mike, have fun, be safe.  Rest in peace, LefTURN.  God bless.”

Finishing 40th was Josh Wise, scoring his worst finish since Fontana, ten races ago, scene of the second of his three DNFs this year.  Next week, Wise is expected to return to the track for the Toyota / Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, California, scene of the first Cup race he finished under power in 2012.

Bobby Labonte is expected to return to the #47 at Sonoma while the #51 will go to Jacques Villeneuve, attempting his first Sprint Cup start since he finished 29th at Indianapolis in 2010.

*This was the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #51 since 2005, when Stuart Kirby’s brakes failed on his Marathon American Spirit Motor Oil Chevrolet after 31 laps of the Sony HD 500.  Finishing 39th that night was J.J. Yeley, who made his first start of the season in the #11 FedEx Chevrolet, the car Jason Leffler drove in nineteen of the season’s first twenty-four races.  On Sunday, Denny Hamlin, Yeley and Leffler’s eventual replacement, ran the car’s white-and-purple paint scheme.  The Fontana race was won by rookie Kyle Busch, the first of his twenty-six to date.
*It’s the first time the #51 has finished last in a Cup race at Michigan.
*This was Labonte’s first last-place finish in a Cup race at Michigan since 2009, when his #96 DLP Ford lost the engine after 18 laps of the Carfax 400.

43) #51-Bobby Labonte / 5 laps / crash
42) #98-Michael McDowell / 36 laps / vibration / led 1 lap
41) #19-Mike Bliss / 50 laps / vibration
40) #35-Josh Wise / 51 laps / vibration
39) #24-Jeff Gordon / 52 laps / crash

1st) Mike Bliss (4)
2nd) Michael McDowell (3)
3rd) Scott Riggs (2)
4th) Trevor Bayne, Dave Blaney, Bobby Labonte, Jason Leffler, Joe Nemechek, Scott Speed (1)

1st) #19-Humphrey-Smith Motorsports (5)
2nd) #98-Phil Parsons Racing (3)
3rd) #44-Xxxtreme Motorsports (2)
4th) #7-Tommy Baldwin Racing, #21-Wood Brothers Racing, #51-Phoenix Racing, #87-NEMCO Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)

1st) Ford (7)
2nd) Toyota (6)
3rd) Chevrolet (2)


UnderdogFan89 said...

Definitely not what either Bobby Labonte or James Finch needed this weekend. Sad for both of them. Also, I thought Bobby drove a couple of seasons with Gibbs after that win in 2003. Was I wrong?

Brock Beard said...

Ooh thank you, you are correct. He raced the car for two more seasons. I will correct that ASAP.