Au Revoir, Men in Grey

As the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season winds down, it’s grown clear three longtime drivers may not have a ride next year. To which I say, “Hurray at last!”

Why does this cheer me? Let’s start with the former Winston Cup champion:

Bobby Labonte
This former series champion has sucked for years. Yes, he’s been in relatively crummy cars post-Gibbs Racing, but that doesn’t excuse his suckiness. In fact, you could argue his slide began in 2004 or 2005, while he was still at Gibbs. But anyway, the show Kurt Busch put on this year in Furniture Row Racing’s #78 car has exposed old guys like Labonte who seem content to just ride around lap after lap, race after race, year after year. Like him or not, KuBu reminded everyone he’s a top-tier driver when he immediately and radically improved the fortunes of the somewhat disadvanted #78 car. Labonte, in contrast, hasn’t improved any of the teams he’s driven for since Gibbs, as far as I can tell.

In case you’re not convinced he sucks, here are Labonte’s 2013 stats to date per the NASCAR Statistics Wizard at FantasyRacingCheatSheet.com:

Average Finish Laps Led Average Running Position Average Driver Rating
29.8 7 29.7 50.83

For reference, here are Jimmie Johnson’s numbers: 11.6 | 1,929 | 9.5 | 109.15, respectively.

Bleh.

So, is it because Labonte has lost his reflexes, his hand-eye coordination? I doubt it. I get the feeling it’s simply due to lost motivation. He doesn’t seem to push as hard during a race anymore. Maybe he doesn’t work as hard at communicating with his crew chief to improve the car, doesn’t put in extra time to get better, make the team better, etc. He just cruises along, not only on the track, but in the garage, the pits, etc., too. So I speculate, anyway.

Regardless, I’m glad (hope!) Bobby Bland won’t be on the track next year full time. And hopefully we won’t see him doing the lame start-park thing with his champion’s provisionals either, like his brother.

Jeff Burton
I’m surprised it took Richard Childress this long to get rid of Burton. He, too, has sucked for years and shown no signs of improving. And unlike Labonte, he’s had access to good equipment! Paul Menard has scored more points this year than Burton—Paul Menard!

Here are Burton’s 2013 stats to date:

Average Finish Laps Led Average Running Position Average Driver Rating
19.4 18 19.0 74.45

Seriously, Burton has led only 18 laps this year so far? Paul Menard has led 72. Paul Menard!

At one point after mid-season, Burton actually showed a little speed here and there (around the time he led those laps), causing various TV announcers and writers to work themselves up into a “Burton is back!” lather. Alas, it was only a statistical aberration, and Burton went back to sucking.

Like Labonte, I speculate Burton has simply lost motivation to invest the time and effort necessary to contend in the hyper-competitive world of Sprint Cup racing. Why else would he continue to drift around mid-pack? For years, in an RCR car?

Mark Martin
I respect Mark Martin. And I like him personally (at least what I know of him from TV, newspapers and online). But he’s definitely on the downslope of his career. Way, way down.

Unlike Burton and Labonte, I think Martin’s poor performance does reflect the ravages of old age. I think he’s still got guts, moxie, determination, motivation, communication skills, etc. And it looks like he still has his hand-eye skills because he’s shown speed this year.

I think he just lacks stamina now. In a number of races he’s qualified well and run up front for spells during races, but he can’t bring it home. It looks to me like he wears out. I think it’s finally time for this old warrior to stand down.

Here are the 2013 stats (so far) for Mr. Martin:

Average Finish Laps Led Average Running Position Average Driver Rating
21.9 98 20.0 72.96

Going Forward
I can’t stand to see consistent mediocrity in sports, be it a second baseman who bats .245 every year with no power, or a NASCAR driver who repeatedly puts up numbers like those posted by the fellows above. Not only is it mind numbing (when I get past the frustration), these guys are just taking up seats that might otherwise be occupied by a good driver, or at least a driver with potential.

Does that mean I want to see the above seats filled with rookies? Not necessarily—calling up guys from NASCAR’s minor leagues is no panacea. But that’s a topic for a future post.

2 thoughts on “Au Revoir, Men in Grey

  1. NASCAR Geek

    Thanks for having the balls to write this article. Not a popular opinion for such a popular (albeit more to fans that have been around for 10 years or so) group of drivers. Each of these guys were top-tier drivers in their day. Jeff Burton is still my wife’s favorite driver. It does drag you down though when your only favorite driver is one of the waning veterans of the sport that provides a season of mediocrity at best.

    I wonder what the average tenure is in the sport for the top-tier drivers? Say from the 1980’s forward. I held on to Jarrett and Rudd as they wrapped up their careers with the same results these three drivers have. I guess ultimately it is hard to step down for anyone that has had such success through their careers. Rusty went at a good time. Martin tried to go at a good time…but ruined his exit by coming back.

  2. Jed Henson Post author

    Thanks man! Yes, Rusty did leave pretty well, on his terms. But you’re right, it’s hard to think of others. Heck, even the King hung on too long.

    It’ll be interesting to see what Jeff Gordon does. Does he have too much pride to linger? It seems like he’s teetering on the edge of mediocrity, just barely clawing his way into respectability each season. Could be close to the end.

    Another interesting question: What would Dale Sr. have done? It sure would’ve been painful to see him running around mid-pack. Hard to imagine he would’ve done that, though.

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