The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is arguably one of the most competitive sports in the world. Winning is not easy and it does not happen often.
For champion Bobby Labonte, he has been fortunate to appear in victory lane 21 times during his career and he’s not finished. He has won some of the most prestigious races on the circuit like the Brickyard 400 and the Coca-Cola 600, but there has been one that has escaped his grasp, the Daytona 500.
Last February, Labonte left Daytona International Speedway with a respectable fourth-place finish in The Great American Race that was first hosted at Daytona International Speedway on February 22, 1959. Pushing leader Trevor Bayne on the final lap, Labonte was in contention coming to the checkered flag in his No. 47 Kroger Toyota Camry until a couple cars caught him and spoiled his plans to pass for the win.
"It was a wild race and we wish we could have won the thing, but we were able to survive and finish in the top-five,” said Labonte, who returns to JTG Daugherty Racing for a second season. “I pushed Trevor passed the white flag and I could see some cars coming with a full head of steam. I was probably a quarter of a car length up too high into Turn 3. Carl Edwards and David Gilliland were fast and had a big run on us. It was an exciting race to the finish.”
Labonte’s new crew chief Todd Berrier has a Daytona 500 win with Kevin Harvick at the helm in 2007. It appeared as though Mark Martin might have had the win in the bag until Harvick got a good run off of Turn 4 and the two were side-by-side in a drag race to the finish line. Harvick prevailed by a mere .020 seconds.
“It was pretty cool to win the Daytona 500 as crew chief,” Berrier said. “Just to be able to work on a car or lead a team that competes in the Daytona 500 is a neat experience. I’m looking forward to going back and working with Bobby. He has won a lot of races. He has won championships. He does know what we have in front of us is a huge task and he can manage that. He knows that he can be part of something and grow something where he can contend for a win. We hope we are there at the end at Daytona so he has a shot at it.”
“I’ve known Todd for a long time and he can bring a lot to the table,” Labonte said. “He’s got a great track record and he’s very successful. I’ve never worked one-on-one with him. He’s worked on my cars before when I have had problems at a short track a long time ago. I know him real well. He’s a perfect fit for this organization. He can multi-task and put people in the right place and make them accountable.”
The Daytona 500’s Harley J. Early trophy is one of the most prized possessions in all of motorsports. Labonte has a burning desire to join the list of great drivers that have hoisted the trophy. He came close by finishing second in 1998 during one of his most memorable Daytona 500s won by the late Dale Earnhardt. Labonte’s last trip to victory lane was at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2003. The team is prepared to help the Texas native break the streak while they seek their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
“We have guys on our team that have won races, know how to win races and know they can win races,” co-owner Brad Daugherty said. “The biggest part of doing it is believing that you can do it and I think we have a good nucleus here that does. Also, there’s a quiet confidence in Bobby Labonte that runs through our whole building every day. He’s been there done that just as Todd Berrier has.”
Co-owner Tad Geschickter agrees and states there are two factors that matter if one wants to be a Daytona 500 victor.
“Two factors come into play,” Geschickter said. “Manufacturers come into play and they try to help each other. We have a number of strong Toyota teams to partner with race day. Then you have to have a driver that other people are comfortable drafting with during this race. We’ve gone there with rookies where we’ve got hung out before. The driver community trusts Bobby and the moves he’s going to make and that definitely helps.”
No matter what happens in the Daytona 500, Labonte looks forward to the journey with his team this season.
“It’s going to be quite a journey,” Labonte said. “A lot of new things have happened. It’s all about the journey that it’s going to take us to get there. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and it’s going to be something that hopefully will make a difference and make an impact. We’re looking forward to starting the season at Daytona.”
Practice sessions for Speedweeks can be found on SPEED. On Sunday, February 19, Daytona 500 Qualifying begins at 1:00 PM on FOX. The Gatorade Duels, which are two 150-mile qualifying races to complete the Daytona 500 field will be held on Thursday, February 23, 2 p.m. ET and air on FOX. The Great American Race is set for 1 p.m. ET Sunday, Feb. 26. FOX, MRN Radio, and SIRIUS/XM NASCAR Radio will broadcast nationally.