CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte won’t race this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his best track, because of sponsorship issues at Yates Racing.
The team had seven races to sell this season for the No. 96 Ford, and the sponsorship it secured wanted Erik Darnell in the car. The 26-year-old will make his Sprint Cup Series debut at Atlanta, where Labonte has six career victories.
“This is not about Bobby; it’s about making sure we have funding for these races,” Yates co-owner Max Jones said Monday. “If it was about Bobby, I would have just put Erik in the car for the rest of the year. That was hard to convey to Bobby.
“But we have this opportunity to get Erik some races, and that’s the business part of this sport. It’s challenging.”
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Academy Sports & Outdoors will sponsor Darnell for three races, at Atlanta, Talladega and Texas. Northern Tool & Equipment, which sponsored him last season in the Truck Series, will be on the car at New Hampshire and Kansas.
Jones said Labonte did not take the decision well.
“I wouldn’t have either if I was him,” Jones said. “He’s a class act, he’s a professional. I had to explain my side, why I was doing it, and he wasn’t happy about it. But he understood, and I respect that.”
Labonte, the 2000 series champion, left Petty Enterprises last season because he was unsure of its long-term stability. He put together a late deal with Hall of Fame Racing, the team owned by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad and president Tom Garfinkel.
Garfinkel and Moorad were able to land a sponsorship deal with Ask.com, one of the few new companies to back NASCAR since last fall’s economic collapse, and then partnered with Yates Racing for technical support. The one-year Ask.com deal covers 29 of 36 races.
Jones tried to sell the rest of the sponsorships, but was better able to sell the potential of Darnell over the history of Labonte.