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?
“I’d love to say I can be happy sitting on the beach, but I don’t know if that can make me happy,” he said. “I’m happy sitting in a race car right now, and that’s my focus. Until someone tells me different, you try to enjoy what you enjoy.”
He enjoyed it so much that he found his consecutive start streak — second only among active drivers to Jeff Gordon’s 706 starts — mattered a great deal to him when it was suddenly over. It didn’t come on his terms, and not racing at Kentucky last weekend marked the first Cup race without a Labonte in the field since the October 1978 race at North Carolina Speedway. Older brother Terry Labonte has 884 starts.
“We’ll start a new one, I guess. You know it’s going to end at some point in time, but I was really looking forward to going to Kentucky,” he said. “You take it one step at a time, you just take it one weekend at a time. Last weekend is over and we started over this weekend. I’ll tell you this, there is no way I am going to 704 again.”
Labonte doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next year. He confirmed Thursday that Terry Labonte has inquired with James Finch about purchasing Phoenix Racing’s assets, but said he didn’t know if he could drive for his older brother. And he doesn’t know how long he’ll drive or when retirement will be the right thing for him.
“I’m very thankful that, 704, my gosh, that’s cool,” he said. “I’ve been able to do that, take care of my stuff, do the right thing and just try to be who you are. That says a lot right there. I don’t look at anybody else. I don’t judge anybody else. When you feel like it’s the right time, it’s the right time.
“There’s a time when you don’t want to do this, but until that time comes, you just try to be as positive about it and do the best you can.”