Savvy Labonte not giving way to 'young guns'


Bobby Labonte has been in NASCAR long enough to understand the excitement generated by the arrival of young drivers.

At 46, with 17 years of Cup racing on his resume, Labonte has seen scores of so-called "young guns" make a splash before settling into workmanlike driving careers.

That doesn't mean Labonte isn't happy for rookie Trevor Bayne, who came out of nowhere to win the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, one day after his 20th birthday, or respectful of Joey Logano, who joined NASCAR's premier series full time in 2009 at age 19 and won a Cup race that year.

That stuff might be fun to talk about, Labonte said, but it doesn't really matter on the track. In that case, the number painted on the side of the car is more important.

"When I'm sitting in the race car, I don't think about another driver's age at all," said Labonte, a Texan who won the 2000 Cup championship and has 21 series victories.

"I don't see age as a big deal. Nobody looks at it except when they put your age next to your name."

A wide age disparity will be in play at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week, particularly Friday during qualifying for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race, the Kobalt Tools 400.

Among the Cup drivers, 23 of the 44 entries are in their 30s. There are nearly as many drivers in their 20s (11) as there are over 40 (10). Bayne will be the youngest and 1988 series champion Bill Elliott, at 55, will be the oldest.

Bayne will be trying to make the Cup field in the Wood Brothers car, and he also will race in the Nationwide Series on Saturday in the Sam's Town 300 for Roush Fenway Racing.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 23, the Nationwide rookie of the year in 2010, is thrilled for the sudden success of Bayne, his friend and Roush Fenway teammate.

"What Trevor did was good for all of us young guys," Stenhouse said. "To a point, being young puts more pressure on you, but if you respect (veteran) drivers on the racetrack then they'll respect you."

Labonte, one of seven drivers in their 40s, finished fourth at Daytona and has shown he can still be highly competitive with a good car and team. Last year he drove for four different owners and finished 31st in points.

To Labonte's new team -- JTG Daugherty Racing -- his age is seen as an asset and he's scheduled to run the full 36-race Cup season. Labonte finished 21st on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway despite getting caught in a pileup.

"We are building our program to be consistently competitive, and we felt we needed veteran leadership behind the wheel. Bobby Labonte provides that leadership," said part-owner Brad Daugherty, the former NBA All-Star. "Our goal is a second car in the near future with a young gun -- no question -- to learn from a champion such as Bobby."

In Las Vegas, where Labonte has won two poles (1999, 2003) and finished in the top five four times since 1998, his car will sport the Kingsford charcoal brand, a product owned by main sponsor Clorox.

"(Labonte) connects in a very special way with our fan base," said Grant LaMontagne, a Clorox vice president.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.

NASCAR WEEK DRIVER APPEARANCES
(Subject to change; some sites might limit attendance)

TODAY
5-7 p.m. -- World of Outlaws drivers Steve Kinser, Donny Schatz, Levi Jones, Bryan Clauson; J.D. Byrider (3024 Fremont St.)

WEDNESDAY
4-5:30 p.m. -- Brad Keselowski; Discount Tire (6565 E. Lake Mead Blvd.)

THURSDAY
12:30 p.m. -- Tony Stewart; Office Depot (1435 W. Craig Rd.); wristbands available starting at 8 a.m. (first 600 fans)

1:30-2:30 p.m. -- Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, Danica Patrick, Elliott Sadler, Kenny Wallace, Steven Wallace; Neon Garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

6 p.m. -- Matt Kenseth; MGM Grand; wristbands available at 3 p.m. (first 300 fans)

6-8 p.m. -- Robby Gordon; Carnival Court at Harrah's Hotel & Casino

6:30-7:30 p.m. -- Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann; The Pub at Monte Carlo

6:30-8:30 p.m. -- Kyle Busch; M&M's World (Las Vegas Boulevard); contact store regarding wristbands (702-736-7611)

7:30-8:30 p.m. -- Q&A with Jimmie Johnson; Sam's Town Live!; no autograph session; doors open at 6:30 p.m.

6:30-7:15 p.m. -- Kyle Petty, Ryan Newman; Hard Rock Hotel

7-8:30 p.m. -- Brad Keselowski; PT's Sierra Gold (6515 S. Jones Blvd.)

FRIDAY
6-7 p.m. -- Bobby Labonte; The Pub at Monte Carlo

7:30-9 p.m. -- David Reutimann, Regan Smith; Suncoast

8-9 p.m. -- Q&A with Greg Biffle, David Ragan, Jeff Hammond; Sam's Town Live!; no autograph session; doors open at 7 p.m.

8 p.m. -- Jeff Green, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Matt Crafton, Eric McClure, Mike Bliss, Carl Long, Robert Richardson Jr., Dave Blaney, Mike Skinner, Timothy Peters, Michael McDowell, Charles Lewandoski, Timmy Hill; Back Alley Bar, Stratosphere
SATURDAY
4:30-5:30 p.m. -- Juan Pablo Montoya; Deer Springs Town Center (N. 5th Street & 215 Beltway); limited to 200 autographs

6-7:30 p.m. -- Joey Logano; Home Depot (855 E. Dorrell Lane)

 

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