Labonte ready to start new streak

Bobby Labonte has a lot of fond memories from his first 704 consecutive races.

He won the 2000 Sprint Cup championship. He won the 1991 Nationwide Series title and the 2001 International Race of Champions overall title. He won 21 Cup races and is one of only 23 drivers to have victories in NASCAR’s top three series.

But last weekend was the first time in 23 years Labonte, 49, was not at a track during the middle of a NASCAR season.

“I was off,” Labonte said.

Labonte is back in a race car this weekend at Daytona. The current team he drives for, JTG/Daugherty Racing, which is 29th in owner points, opted to put AJ Allmendinger in the seat to get a second opinion on what was missing in the car’s performance.

“We’re just trying to get the race team better for everybody and figuring out how to make it better for everyone, that’s the key,” Labonte said. “We’ll definitely learn more as we go.

“You know it’s going to end at some point in time, but I was really looking forward to going to Kentucky. We had a great two-day test there — the best test we’ve been on, actually the only test other than Charlotte that we’ve been on — that was good. But we never got to put it into play. You hate that it happened, but there’s a reason for everything.”

Racers are fortunate. In most stick-and-ball sports, even the superstars age out well before their 40s. For a lot of professional stock car drivers, that’s just when they’re coming into their prime.

Labonte was 36 when he won his Cup title in 2000 and has continued to compete ever since. His brother Terry captured his second Cup championship four years earlier when he was 39 and still runs a limited schedule today. Tony Stewart was 40 when he won his last title in 2011 and among current contenders, 40-somethings Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon are all among the top 15 in the point standings.

Mark Martin is certainly the poster child for the AARP set. Although Martin does not compete full-time any longer, when the 54-year-old joins the Cup Series, he’s still winning poles and posting top-five and top-10 finishes.

Still, the difference between the above mentioned drivers and Labonte is the caliber of equipment. Stewart, Kenseth, Biffle, Gordon and Martin have the luxury of competing in and with multi-car operations.

Labonte acknowledges that “it’s difficult” running at the back of the pack. He feels there’s a fine line between hitting the set-up and missing it altogether.

“I’m pretty confident,” Labonte said. “I feel like the guys have done a pretty good job. Without a teammate, it’s hard for me to understand what other people need in a race car or what I need especially in a new type of race car. Last year I think we had a better handle on it than we do this year — a lot of hard work in that.

“We can overcome a lot of things. We just have to have everything right.”

For now, Labonte says he remains “supportive” of his race team. Labonte wouldn’t say whether he’s pursuing other rides for next season or how long he expects to race although he would prefer it be “later than sooner.”

The only thing Labonte says he’s certain of is that when he “starts over” on Saturday night, he won’t be racing back up to number 704 — again.

“When you feel like it’s the right time it’s the right time,” Labonte said. “When you’re a working stiff that there’s a time when you don’t want to do this, until that time comes you just try to stay positive and do the best you can.

“Racers love to race. I’d be lying to you if I said there are days you go, ‘What am I doing?’ Then there are days you go, ‘What the heck? Why would I think that?’ You go through that. Everyone goes through that … You don’t have any promises for tomorrow so whatever happens, happens. You just better be happy and be ready for it.”