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Bobby Labonte: Donít Ask Me, Better Ask.com

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Allstate 400 at the Brickyard - Qualifying

By: DJ DeSpain

Bobby Labonte didnít have a good day on Monday, and he was nowhere near a track. In fact, he probably wonít be near the next seven tracks on the race schedule.† On Monday, Hall of Fame Racing announced that the #96 car will be driven by Erik Darnell instead of Labonte for the next seven races.

Labonte has temporarily lost his seat in the #96 Ask.com car because the sponsor only contracted for 29 of the 36 races with Yates Racing, the partner with Hall of Fame racing which owns the car. Having to sell the 7 races in the gap, Yates Racing managed to do so piece meal for the next 5 races using existing sponsors on the Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) car in the Nationwide and Truck series . However, with those sponsors comes the driver they were sponsoring, Erik Darnell, an up and coming driver that got his start with the RFR driver development program.

Confused yet? Maybe this might help.

Hall of Fame Racing, owned by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad and team president Tom Garfinkel, signed Bobby Labonte as their primary driver for 2009. But the team did not have enough money to stand alone due to lack of sponsors, so it partnered with Yates Racing this year for the equipment and technical support. With that partnership, Hall of Fame Racing gave the responsibility to Yates Racing to handle the sponsorship issues.

Yates Racing is closely aligned with RFR, first because of the Ford motor program, and second to bleed off drivers from RFR due to the number of cars restriction. Darnell has been stuck in the RFR driver development program, driving in the Nationwide and Truck series for RFR, and unable to move up to the Sprint Cup series due to the funding slowdowns and the lack of available cars at RFR.

The final nail in Labonteís coffin was probably his own performance this year versus Darnellís career to date. In 24 starts this year, Labonte has only one top-10 finish and is 30th in the standings. Meanwhile Darnell , in his career to date, ran three full Camping World Truck Series seasons and scored three poles, two wins, 16 top-five, and 32 top-10 finishes. He won rookie of the year honors in 2005. In 11 starts in the Nationwide Series, Darnell has one pole, two top-five finishes, and five top-10 results.

“This is a move that will be beneficial to Yates Racing surviving this difficult economic time,” Labonte stated a released statement. “Of course, I’m disappointed that the sponsorship environment is so challenging right now, but I intend to make the most out of the remaining races that I’m behind the wheel for Ask.com, DLP, and Hall of Fame Racing.”

Labonte is assured by Hall of Fame racing that he will return for the final 5 races to fulfill the Ask.com sponsorship obligation, but that doesnít make him any happier with the situation. Up until now, Bobby had a consecutive race starts streak of 568 races since the 1993 Daytona 500, a streak second to Jeff Gordonís ongoing streak of 569 race starts. Of course, thatís still a long way away from Ricky ďIronmanĒ Ruddís streak of 788 consecutive starts, but I bet Bobby wanted at least 7 more.

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