Labonte heads south once more
As he has done for all but three years since 1979, Terry Labonte will head south next week with an eye on racing in the Daytona 500.
As in his last four attempts over the past five years, the two-time Cup champion is going as a driver of a second-tier team instead of in top-notch cars as he was in the days he drove for Hendrick Motorsports.
For the third straight year, Labonte, a Davidson County resident, will be in a car owned by former Bill Davis Racing crew chief Frank Stoddard.
“I still enjoy getting out there and competing, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll able to do it,” said Labonte, 56. “It gives me one more chance to race in the 500. And Frankie’s cars have been pretty fast at Daytona and Talladega.”
Labonte plans to drive Stoddard’s cars in the two races at Daytona and Talladega, with sponsorship from an energy company out of Corpus Christi, Texas, where Labonte grew up. Labonte chose those events because lesser teams have a shot to run with better-funded cars, thanks to the aerodynamic drafting technique that tends to keep the field together.
“A smaller team can be more competitive at Daytona and Talladega than the other tracks,” Labonte said. “The cars are so much more technical than years ago so it’s hard for a small team, one that doesn’t have all the engineers that the big teams do, to be competitive even at the smaller tracks at Daytona and Talladega.
“It’s not hard to drive the cars, but it is hard to make them turn mechanically. So, it makes it hard to be competitive at some of the other places I would like to race like Richmond or even Bristol.”
Labonte will again have the possibility of a past champion’s provisional starting spot as a way in race fields if he does not qualify otherwise. But, unlike past years, he will not have an unlimited number of provisionals.
Because of a rule change announced last week, all past champions will begin the year with one provisional and will get another one for every six races. That will give Labonte just one.
“I didn’t know about it,” Labonte said. “But it isn’t that big of a deal. Either you are fast enough or you are not.”
Although eligible for Saturday night’s race formerly known as the Shootout, Labonte will not compete.
Dave Blaney left today for Florida to get in some racing before he begins practice at Daytona on Saturday in advance of Daytona 500 front-row qualifying on Sunday.
Blaney is set to compete in five nights of sprint car races at a half-mile dirt track just west of Daytona.
“It’s my car,” said Blaney, the former sprint car champ. “I was set to do some sprint stuff last summer but I got so involved with (his son) Ryan, when his deal took off with the Truck and Nationwide races that I had to drop it. But I want to get involved back in the sprint world and is that a whole different style of racing than NASCAR.”
On the NASCAR side, Blaney will be back with Tommy Baldwin Racing, but with a number change. Blaney will be in car No. 7, which was the number that adorned the Modifieds driven by Badlwin’s late father in New England.
Baldwin has announced sponsorship for about half of the 36-race schedule. Blaney said the team intends to compete in every race and that Baldwin has brought in more engineers and mechanics.
“The sponsorship will enable us to rent better engines, and last year our stuff was just OK at some races,” Blaney said. “On the speedways were good because we had Earnhardt-Childress engines. But, with the additional engineers, we should have a better car when we unload on Friday and won’t be playing catchup as much.”
Blaney will need to be better because of a change in the way starting fields are determined. Gone is the practice of guaranteeing starting sports to those in the top 35 of owners points Instead, NASCAR has gone back to the old system of deciding the top 36 spots on speed and filling out the next six spots on the basis of points among those who did not qualify in the top 36. The 43rd and final spot will go to either a past champion who doesn’t make the top 42 or to someone on points.
“The biggest thing with being in the top 35 is that we didn’t have to work on our qualifying setups in practice,” Blaney said. “I don’t know if we did that any last year. Now we will because you don’t want to have to rely on points to get in. But everyone sle will be doing it too. It is not a