Bobby Labonte returns to the track 1 week after streak of 704 consecutive starts ended

  • Article by: JENNA FRYER , AP Auto Racing Writer
  • Updated: July 4, 2013 - 7:07 PM

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bobby Labonte has spent his weekends at the race track for 22 consecutive years, a stretch so long he doesn't even know what normal people do with their free time.

He had to figure it out the hard way last weekend, when he found himself out of a ride for the first time since 1989.

Labonte gave no specifics Thursday as to how he spent last weekend while AJ Allmendinger raced the No. 47 Toyota that Labonte has piloted since 2011.

"Ended up staying busy doing something," Labonte said. "Obviously wasn't what I thought I'd be doing."

He didn't watch the race at Kentucky Speedway, where his streak of 704 consecutive Sprint Cup Series starts came to an unwitting end. JTG Daugherty Racing decided to use Allmendinger in the car for a handful of races this year in an attempt for the single-car operation to get more feedback on its car and the overall program.

Labonte was able to keep his streak going when the team used Allmendinger at Michigan last month by jumping into Phoenix Racing's No. 51 car for the weekend. But he indicated Friday that it was a one-time only deal because of the conflict between JTG's Toyota relationship and Phoenix's use of Chevrolets.

It put Allmendinger in an awkward position as he doesn't want to be blamed for Labonte's streak ending.

"It's such a tough subject because I am just trying to go out there and do my job," Allmendinger said. "They asked me to go out there and drive the car and get a feel for it and give my feedback. I'm just trying to give the best feedback I can, and at the end of the weekend, if they've learned some things, then I've done my job.

"Bobby is so well-respected, he's a champion, and streaks are going to end at some point. Not that I wanted it to end like that, but I have no control over that. I've just been hired to drive a race car. That's all."

Labonte didn't watch Allmendinger race at Kentucky. He was off doing something — he offered only that he "was driving somewhere, so I didn't get to" watch the race — and kept the details of his weekend private.

Now back in the car for JTG at Daytona International Speedway, the former NASCAR champion was faced with questions he's not ready to answer.

"How long do you want to drive?"

"Have you thought about retirement?"

"What's next for you?"

It's a conversation the 49-year-old Labonte is clearly not ready to have. He played coy on most of the questions, revealing very little about his thought process as he nears the end of a remarkable career.

Labonte has 21 Cup victories dating to his 1993 rookie season, and he won the 2000 Cup title driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

But his last win was 10 years ago, at Homestead, in the 2003 season finale driving the green No. 18 Interstate Batteries car that signified his career. He's got just four top-10 finishes in his last 88 races, and none this year. He heads into Saturday night's race at Daytona ranked 30th in the Cup standings.

So why does Labonte continue to show up every weekend?

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