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Posted: Saturday September 5, 2009 11:05AM; Updated: Saturday September 5, 2009 11:05AM
Mark Beech Mark Beech >

Bottom line real reason why Labonte was replaced by Darnell

Story Highlights

Bobby Labonte lost the No. 96 because his sponsor wasn't signed for all of '09

Labonte is replaced by Erik Darnell, a Nationwide driver who has 11 career starts

Labonte's struggles this season mean the move will make little difference

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Bobby Labonte (above), the 2000 Cup champ, will be replaced by Erik Darnell for seven races.
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The unseating of Bobby Labonte this week serves as a reminder of how difficult life in NASCAR has become with the country's continued economic struggles. His sponsor,, wasn't signed for a full season. When Northern Tool & Equipment, the sponsors for rookie Erik Darnell (who's only made 11 Nationwide starts), offered to pony up for a seven-race agreement on the condition that Darnell replace Labonte in the No. 96 starting at Atlanta, officials at Yates Racing had no choice. Not even Labonte's 2000 Cup title was enough to keep him from getting bounced.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the last few days about the lack of loyalty in NASCAR and how Labonte deserved more respect and consideration. While this is totally understandable, it's also more than a little na´ve. There aren't many owners who can afford to run seven races without any sponsorship whatsoever. Leave aside the bills for the car (which are considerable) and look at the schedule: Atlanta, Richmond, Loudon, Dover, Kansas, Fontana, Charlotte. Are you kidding?

Not only does a team have to show up with two cars, a full team and all its equipment, but it also has to pay for hotels and transportation and a million little other things. The first four races, all based in the East, might be manageable. But the Kansas-to-California-to-Carolina leg would be devastating to an unsponsored team's bottom line. Yates Racing has already had to lay people off because of the economy. Running seven races without a sponsor would be a crippling body blow-one that would likely entail more job cuts.

Perhaps Labonte's teammate, Paul Menard, could have been shuffled out. After all, he does rank 32nd. But Menard is sponsored by his family's business. That package deal, as much as Labonte's own sponsorship woes, is what leaves the former champ the out in the cold. NASCAR has always been about the bottom line, but with money tight, there's very little wiggle room except for the sport's richest operations.

The unpleasant fact for Labonte's fans is that on the track, the driver change is likely to make little difference. Labonte is currently 30th in the Cup standings, with just one top-10 finish this year, and he hasn't won a race in the series since 2003. If Darnell can protect his equipment and doesn't miss any left turns, he's not likely to do much worse.

Pit Stops

34: Points that separate 12th-place Matt Kenseth and 13th-place Kyle Busch in the Cup standings

13.8: Average finish for Kenseth at Atlanta

18.2: Average finish for Busch at Atlanta

The Photo Finish

Behold, a car-launch-you heard me, a car-launch-in all its unstinting awesomeness!

It's actually pretty sophisticated stuff, from a technical standpoint. But it's sophistication in the service of asininity, which either makes it beautiful or horrifying depending on whether your into stuff like car crashes and 'splosions...and I think we can all agree that most Racing Fans are.

I'm not sure which of the folks I found most amusing. There's the gent who insists, several times over, that next year he wants to see something called a "demolition derby." Or there's the nonplussed anchors who are left to explain how exactly this made its way onto a news broadcast.

As if they didn't know.

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