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Bobby Labonte made 704 consecutive Sprint Cup starts before last weekend.
Associated Press | File May
Veteran NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte, 49, may not have a car to drive next season.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway on Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Friday, July 5, 2013
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Bobby Labonte has spent his weekends at the race track for 22 consecutive years, a stretch so long he doesn't even know what normal people do with their free time.
He had to figure it out the hard way last weekend, when he found himself out of a ride for the first time since 1989.
Labonte gave no specifics Thursday as to how he spent last weekend while AJ Allmendinger raced the No. 47 Toyota that Labonte has piloted since 2011.
"Ended up staying busy doing something," Labonte said. "Obviously wasn't what I thought I'd be doing."
He didn't watch the race at Kentucky Speedway, where his streak of 704 consecutive Sprint Cup Series starts came to an unceremonious end. JTG Daugherty Racing decided to use Allmendinger in the car for a handful of races this year in an attempt for the single-car operation to get more feedback on its car and the overall program.
Labonte was able to keep his streak going when the team used Allmendinger at Michigan last month by jumping into Phoenix Racing's No. 51 car for the weekend. But he indicated Friday that it was a one-time only deal because of the conflict between JTG's Toyota relationship and Phoenix's use of Chevrolets.
It put Allmendinger in an awkward position, as he didn't want to be blamed for Labonte's streak ending.
"It's such a tough subject because I am just trying to go out there and do my job," Allmendinger said. "They asked me to go out there and drive the car and get a feel for it and give my feedback. I'm just trying to give the best feedback I can, and at the end of the weekend, if they've learned some things, then I've done my job.
"Bobby is so well-respected, he's a champion, and streaks are going to end at some point. Not that I wanted it to end like that, but I have no control over that. I've just been hired to drive a race car. That's all."
Now back in the car for JTG at Daytona International Speedway, Labonte was faced with questions he's not ready to answer.
"How long do you want to drive?"
"Have you thought about retirement?"
"What's next for you?"
It's a conversation Labonte, 49, is clearly not ready to have. He played coy on most of the questions, revealing very little about his thought process as he nears the end of a remarkable career.
Labonte has 21 Cup victories dating to his 1993 rookie season, and he won the 2000 Cup title driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
But his last win was 10 years ago, at Homestead, in the 2003 season finale driving the green No. 18 Interstate Batteries car that signified his career. He's got just four top-10 finishes in his last 88 races, and none this year. He heads into Saturday night's race at Daytona ranked 30th in the Cup standings.
So why does Labonte continue to show up every weekend?
"I'd love to say I can be happy sitting on the beach, but I don't know if that can make me happy," he said. "I'm happy sitting in a race car right now, and that's my focus. Until someone tells me different, you try to enjoy what you enjoy."
He enjoyed it so much that he found his consecutive start streak - second only among active drivers to Jeff Gordon's 706 starts - mattered a great deal to him when it was suddenly over. It didn't come on his terms, and not racing at Kentucky last weekend marked the first Cup race without a Labonte in the field since the October 1978 race at North Carolina Speedway. Older brother Terry Labonte has 884 starts.
"We'll start a new one, I guess. You know it's going to end at some point in time, but I was really looking forward to going to Kentucky," he said. "You take it one step at a time, you just take it one weekend at a time. Last weekend is over and we started over this weekend. I'll tell you this, there is no way I am going to 704 again."
Labonte doesn't know what he'll be doing next year. He confirmed Thursday that Terry Labonte has inquired with James Finch about purchasing Phoenix Racing's assets, but said he didn't know if he could drive for his older brother. And he doesn't know how long he'll drive or when retirement will be the right thing for him.
"I'm very thankful that, 704, my gosh, that's cool," he said. "I've been able to do that, take care of my stuff, do the right thing and just try to be who you are."
Kenseth wins Nationwide race at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Matt Kenseth won the Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Kenseth was leading when the race resumed with two laps to go following a red-flag stoppage of nearly 10 minutes. James Buescher hooked onto his back bumper and the two broke away from the pack.
As Kenseth and Buescher sailed cleanly to the finish, the battle behind them was for third place. It went to Elliott Sadler, who picked up a $100,000 bonus from series sponsor Nationwide as the highest finishing driver in the "Dash 4 Cash" program.
Kurt Busch finished fourth in a car designed with the beloved City Chevrolet paint scheme from the "Days of the Thunder" movie. He and the Phoenix Racing crew spent much of the race in character with Busch reciting movie lines.
Busch, Kenseth sweep Daytona front row
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth had two of the strongest cars in the season-opening Daytona 500 but had nothing to show for it after a pair of engine failures.
The Joe Gibbs Racing duo is determined not to let that happen Saturday night in their return to Daytona International Speedway.
Busch and Kenseth swept the front row in Friday qualifying, with Busch turning a lap at 193.723 mph to win the pole. Kenseth was second at 193.299.
It's Busch's third pole of the season, 13th of his career, but first ever for a restrictor plate race.
"I've not had many opportunities for me to win poles at restrictor plate races, so I've got to thank the team, all the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing that did such a good job building a slick race car," Busch said. "It's a team effort coming to these places and having great race cars. I'm really excited to be starting up front, especially with my teammate Matt Kenseth on the front row with us."
Kenseth led 86 laps at Daytona in February and was out front with teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin right behind him when his engine failed. Two laps later, Busch was headed to the garage with his own race-ending failure.
"We were lined up 1-2-3 when I broke and Kyle broke shortly after that," said Kenseth. "Our plate stuff has been really fast this year. Qualifying doesn't always mean a lot at a superspeedway, but it's nice to start up front. Hopefully we can keep it up and stay in front of any potential trouble."
Clint Bowyer qualified second and Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. was fifth as Toyota drivers took four of the first five spots. MWR team co-owner Michael Waltrip was seventh.
It was a strong showing for the Toyota drivers, who have battled various engine woes all season as manufacturer Toyota Racing Development has struggled to find the right balance of speed and durability.
Kenseth was pleased with the showing.
"They are always looking to get more power and you are always trying to get better reliability," Kenseth said. "A huge part of our success all year has obviously been our engines and TRD. They are a very important piece not only to our success at Joe Gibbs Racing but also Michael Waltrip Racing."
Bowyer then interrupted Kenseth.
"It's not really fair. Yours was better than mine," Bowyer said of being outqualified by the JGR duo.
Kasey Kahne prevented a Toyota sweep by wedging his Chevrolet in at fourth. He's had terrible results at plate tracks this year because he was wrecked in the Daytona 500 and at Talladega by Busch.
On Saturday, Kahne will start in the row behind Busch. But Busch wasn't expecting intentional payback.
"That's a real legitimate question?" Busch said when asked if he was concerned about Kahne. "I think we know that Kasey is a lot better than that. No, it doesn't have any worry or concern on me."
Paul Menard was sixth in a Chevrolet, and MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip was seventh in another Toyota.
Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson was eighth, followed by rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle as the highest-qualifying Fords.
Danica Patrick wound up 11th in in her return to Daytona, where she became the first woman to start from the pole in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"Wind definitely plays a factor even from qualifying here at the beginning of the year for the 500 when we were on the pole there was certain spots that I gained and lost on that lap," Patrick said. "We kind of figured it was probably a wind thing."
Daytona breaks ground on $400M renovation
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR driver Greg Biffle climbed into a bulldozer, pulled a few levers and then dumped a load of dirt onto the ground.
Fireworks exploded in the background.
Biffle earned the honor of breaking ground on a $400 million renovation at Daytona International Speedway on Friday. Biffle and fellow driver Trevor Bayne teamed up to win an obstacle-course race in massive front-end loaders outside the famed track.
Biffle and Bayne maneuvered the course faster than two other teams. Fellow Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman finished second, followed by television announcers Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds.
Biffle and Bayne hoisted trophies in a mock Victory Lane celebration and were rewarded with a brief stint in the cockpit of the bulldozer.
Tony Stewart talks soda cookies and splits
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you believe Tony Stewart is an agile, limber and graceful athlete.
That wasn't Stewart doing a split in his new Mobil 1 commercial with Formula One driver Jenson Button.
And he doesn't actually eat "soda cookies."
The spot, which began airing last month, shows Stewart using Mobil 1 oil to lubricate his hips and legs before sliding into a full split to dunk his cookie in a glass of soda.
"Let's make no mistakes about it - if I got down there, I would still be down there," Stewart said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "They did not ask me to do that. They had me get down on the ground for the camera shot, but they had green screens. They had some male gymnast do it, I don't know who it was, I didn't want to be there when he did it."
Mobil 1 currently has two ads out with Stewart and Button, and the second one has the drivers comparing their fitness levels with Stewart easily riding a stationary bike. Both scripts were a surprise to Stewart when he showed up to film.
"It actually was a lot of fun shooting the spots because I never look at what the spots are supposed to be and I get there and I'm starting to read the scripts and it's saying 'Tony is getting on an exercise bike, he's doing splits' and I'm like 'Which Tony is doing this? Is there another Tony?' " he said.
And the soda cookies were new to three-time NASCAR champion who has never tried to hide his love of fast food and snacks.
"I can't say that I've ever sat down and grabbed a coke and grabbed Oreos ... I've ate Oreos and I've chased them with coke, but I can't say that I've done a lot of dunking," he said. "It actually was pretty good. I might have started a trend now."
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