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Bobby Labonte, TRG Split

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010

Bobby Labonte has left TRG.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Former Sprint Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte apparently will spend the remainder of the 2010 NASCAR season as a hired gun.

Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, announced he was leaving TRG Motorsports in a news release Wednesday morning. And before the close of business, he had picked up a three-race gig involving Robby Gordon Motorsports and Phoenix Racing.

Labonte decided to bolt TRG after a 23rd-place, lead-lap finish in the season’s first road-race, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday. Labonte has started all 16 Cup races this season for The Racer’s Group, the fledgling NASCAR team co-owned by Kevin and Debra Buckler.

Labonte’s best start in the No. 71 Adobe Road Winery Chevrolet Impala was eighth at Infineon; his best finish was 21st in the season-opening Daytona 500 in February and at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. He has led one lap this season, at Pocono Raceway, earlier this month. Thirty-first in the driver’s point standings, Labonte is ready to freelance.

“I want to be in a position to win races and be competitive,” Labonte, 46, said in a statement. “I have worked as hard as possible to give my best at the track so far this season. I’m now looking to move on and get back into a position to win races.”

Labonte will get his first opportunity to do so driving the No. 7 Monster Energy Toyota Camry in place of owner/driver Gordon in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend.

“When we found out that Bobby was available to drive for us, we jumped at it,” said Gordon, who scored the first of his three career Cup wins _ and only victory on an oval _ at Loudon, N.H., at the end of the 2001 season. “To have a past champion driving your car is a good opportunity. I think we can learn from him this weekend and it will help our program moving forward.”

Gordon, an accomplished road-racer, finished second to four-time/reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.

“I can’t thank Robby and his folks enough for this opportunity,” said Labonte, the 1991 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. “We’re going to New Hampshire with the goal of having another solid run for his team. They had a great finish at Sonoma and have some momentum right now. I’m just thankful for the opportunity and hope to get another solid finish for his team.”

Later in the day, Phoenix Racing and team-owner James Finch announced that Labonte will drive the No. 09 Miccousukee Resorts Chevrolet in a two-race deal beginning with the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 3. He also is slated to drive the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 10.

“It’s good to know that we’ll have a past champion in our car for these two races,” Finch said. “I’ve known Bobby for a while and he always works hard behind the wheel. This is a good opportunity for us to race for a win.”

A veteran of the Coca-Cola Racing Family, Labonte is on pace to make his 600th career start at DIS during the Coke Zero 400. Finch’s team currently is looking for sponsorship for the two events and reportedly will retain Labonte for additional starts if funding can be secured.

“Any driver wants the chance to win at Daytona,” said Labonte, the winner of 21 Cup races _ all with Joe Gibbs Racing between 1995 and 2003. “It’s awesome that James has given me this opportunity and also the chance to compete at Chicagoland. I’m looking forward to these two races.” Labonte has not won at either DIS or Chicagoland.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Labonte is in a prolonged winless drought. Labonte scored his most recent victory in the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2003 – a streak that now has reached 232 consecutive races.

Labonte spent 11 years (1995-2005) at JGR, claiming the Cup championship in 2000 with four wins and 19 top-five results in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix. Labonte finished 265 points in front of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. Labonte also has scored 26 career poles, the most recent in April 2004 at Texas Motor Speedway. That drought now stands at 225 consecutive races.

Labonte logged three fruitless seasons with Petty Enterprises (2006-2008), a stretch that produced only four top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 108 starts.

TRG, meanwhile, has struggled to gain traction in Cup since joining the series fulltime in 2009. But Buckler’s California-based organization has enjoyed considerable success in road-racing since 1995. Competing with Porsches in the Grand American Road Racing Association, TRG won GT class honors at the 2002 Rolex 24 at Daytona, America’s premier endurance sports car race.

That effort prompted the Porsche factory to amp-up its support, and the team promptly added a GT class victory at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 2002. TRG’s road-racing effort reached another milestone in 2003, when Buckler, Michael Schrom, Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister scored an upset overall victory in a Porsche GT3RS in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Labonte made his debut for TRG’s Cup team in place of David Gilliland at Atlanta Motor Speedway last September, bringing with him use of the Past Champion’s Provisional. Mike Bliss also filled in for the team last season.

TRG began the season with sponsorship from Taxslayer.com for 12 races. Since the team is not sponsored for the full season, a number of races have been handled in a start-and-park manner. At Dover International Speedway in mid-May, for example, the team quit after 65 laps.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010