this week in nascar

by Monte Dutton

It’s Easier Than Firing the Team

Word arrives that Bobby Labonte will be replaced, for most of the rest of the season, by Erik Darnell at Yates Racing (or Hall of Fame, its precursor; Jeff Moorad is still listed as the owner).

Labonte is only 30th in the Sprint Cup points. The team is going nowhere. The sponsor(s) apparently want the change, and for a team that’s 30th in points, a sponsor carries quite a bit of sway.

Here’s another way NASCAR has changed. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, NASCAR scoffed at the notion that, in CART, drivers had rides because they brought sponsorships with them.

That happens in NASCAR nowadays. Apparently it’s not just drivers bringing sponsorships (as in Paul Menard being sponsored by the company that carries his name) but sponsors making driver decisions.

That’s maybe a bit overdramatized, but still….

Why do a few teams win all the races? One of the reasons is stability and authority. The best teams — Hendrick, Roush Fenway, Gibbs — have enough to really make hiring and firing decisions based on merit, not money.

In the end, it’s just another reason the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

And there’s never been a better example of how hard it is to regain control from a skid than Yates Racing.

No one knows whether or not Darnell can improve the team. It’s really hard to judge young talent coming up, partly because Sprint Cup drivers win almost all the Nationwide Series races. Sure, it’s great for the young drivers to gain the experience of racing against big stars, but it’s not great for their self-confidence to be basically running for 15th place every week, either.

In short, no one really knows whether or not Darnell is up to this task. All that’s known is that apparently wants to make a change, and the change of Darnell for Labonte is one Doug Yates could sell to the moneymen. He was the compromise reached.

Mark Martin has proved this year that a 50-year-old can win races. No one else in his generation has proved it, though.

Nine years ago, Bobby Labonte won what was then the Winston Cup championship.

He’s five years younger than Martin.

The one advantage in putting Darnell in the No. 96 Ford for seven of the last 11 races is that he will provide at least a modest means of comparison.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at

(c) 2009 King Features Synd., Inc.

Erik Darnell (left) will replace Bobby Labonte (right) at Yates racing for most of the rest of the season. (Getty Images photo)