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Buckler Wheeling In Grand-Am, Dealing in Sprint Cup

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
Bobby Labonte will be at the wheel of the TRG car this weekend and beyond.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Bobby Labonte will be at the wheel of the TRG car this weekend and beyond. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Hampton, Ga. – It’s been quite a week for TRG Motorsports owner Kevin Buckler, literally a wheeler and a dealer. On the same day he  drove his Porsche around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Buckler signed up a series champion for his Sprint Cup team.

The former Rolex 24 at Daytona winner drove his Porsche 911 GT3 at the Indy in a test held by the Grand-Am Series on the road courses used for Formula 1 and the MotoGP on Thursday.

That same day, the rookie Sprint Cup team owner reached agreement with the 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte to drive in seven of the remaining 12 races.

On Saturday, TRG sustained its record of making every race since missing the Daytona 500 when Labonte qualified 25th at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday night’s race. For Labonte, who had his TaxSlayer.com Chevy almost sideways off of Turn 4 on his qualifying lap, it will be his 569th consecutive start in the Sprint Cup.

“We get up every day and we try to move the ball forward,” said Buckler, whose schedule is always jammed with sponsor or partner meetings when he’s not doing his occasional driving stint behind the wheel.

It’s not certain if Buckler will get a chance to ever race at Indy, because no event has been scheduled there for the Grand-Am. But it was the chance of a lifetime for a lifelong sports car driver to test there a little more than a month after his first entry in the Brickyard 400 as a team owner. “Everything was cool,” said Buckler of the road course layouts. “Going out on the track was the icing on the cake, and going over the yard of bricks was really special.”

Buckler continues to rely on his experience as an owner/driver in sports cars to sustain a Sprint Cup team of just 11 full-time members, including Crew Chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe. In a NASCAR economy where dance partners are changing according to whoever can find a sponsor, Buckler is in his element after juggling drivers in as many as six Porsches on any given Grand-Am race weekend.

“If I can make Bobby look better today than he looked in the last race, that’s going to make us look better,” said Buckler. “He’s got a loyal fan base and they’re going to be saying, ‘Let’s see how you take care of our boy Bobby.'”

For his part, Labonte is trying to keep his starting streak alive and help bring in sponsorship dollars. “I just hope that I can bring the right things to them,” he said prior to qualifying. “Sponsorship dollars is huge. TRG Motorsports do a great job managing what they have to spend.”

Labonte was recently released from seven of the final 12 races by Yates/Hall of Fame Racing, because that team will substitute Erik Darnell for the races where sponsor Ask.com is not particpating. But will the 2000 Sprint Cup champion have to “start and park” with Buckler in the races where they do not have sponsorship?

Buckler has been in the front of the “start and park” movement, racing the full distance in Sprint Cup events only if he has enough sponsorship. For Labonte, that means the team will enter and attempt to run the full race in Atlanta and at least two more events that also have TaxSlayer.com sponsorship: Talladega and Homestead. The other events for Labonte at TRG are: New Hampshire, Kansas, Texas and Phoenix.

“We don’t want to (start and park),”  said Buckler, who has a virtual guarantee of a starting spot with the 2000 Sprint Cup champion as a driver. “Of the seven races (with Labonte), three of them are funded, four of them aren’t. So we need to dig harder to get something done for those other races. Bobby doesn’t want to lose his streak and we want to keep him in the car.” That means trying to sell sponsorship in order to run complete races.

David Gilliland, driving for injured Bill Elliott in Atlanta in a Wood Brothers Ford, had driven all the races since Daytona for TRG on a handshake agreement. He is expected to return after three races at Joe Gibbs Racing under Farm Mutual sponsorship and possibly as many as two for Robby Gordon Motorsports. One of the races for Gilliland and Gibbs is in Charlotte. That means TRG at present cannot rely on either Labonte, who will drive for Yates/Hall of Fame that weekend or Gilliland, even though sponsorship is on board with TaxSlayers.com.

Buckler, who began as a self-funded driver and now enters as many as six Porsches on some Grand-Am weekends, is used to having a lot of balls in the air. He has more investors (21) than crew members at TRG Motorsports. He’s launched a new initiative this summer, entering a Mercedes Benz SLR built by McLaren in the Speed World Challenge Series, which is sanctioned by the SCCA. His plans to continue in the Camping World Truck Series, meanwhile, are on hold.

In addition to the team’s record this year and a previous relationship with Crew Chief Labbe in the Nationwide Series, the established success in the Grand-Am of TRG influenced Labonte’s decision.

“I’ve run the Daytona Prototypes in the Grand-Am Series a couple of times,” he said. “I’ve seen the TRG group at the race track. I’ve seen Kevin and his crowd of Porsches sitting there, which is really impressive.”

Buckler also offered an antidote for some of the issues Labonte ran into at Yates/Hall of Fame Racing. His small team has a different approach than the established multi-car teams. “They look at the computer models and simulations,” said Buckler, “and give the engineers a set of notes and say, ‘Here’s what you do.’ Bobby doesn’t like that, because he doesn’t get as much input. Over here, we’re totally relying on his input, to tell Slugger what to do and Slugger makes his decisions. We’re totally relying on those two guys. So far it’s worked out pretty good for us. I’m not saying our system is the best. It’s just the only system we have.”

While the Top 35 teams work on long green runs since they’re guaranteed a starting spot, the TRG team, 37th in points, focuses on reaching similar speeds for at least one or two laps to prepare for the make-or-break qualifying. “We’re pretty consistent,” said Buckler, “and sometimes we’re fast, too.”

With just two practices, the mission for Labonte, a winner in Atlanta on six occasions, will be sustaining consistency on a track that’s fickle in weather changes. The race will start in the evening and finish at night on a worn surface where grip can be hard to find.

“I think we have a decent car,” said Labonte. “I think it will be a struggle because the track is so hard to get a hold of this weekend. It is a great race track, but it is also the most temperature sensitive. Three or four years ago it was better, now it is a challenge. You have to have a car that has some grip in it. These cars are so close that it doesn’t take much to be off.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
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