Labonte, JTG Daugherty have one objective in 2012: progress
In 2012 Bobby Labonte will begin his second season with JTG Daugherty Racing, an organization that has made major structural changes and has new leadership in general manager and crew chief Todd Berrier. It's a transitional year for them, but Labonte and the team believe it can be a successful one.
It's a tall order, but it's not impossible. Labonte's once-flourishing career -- he was the 2000 Sprint Cup champion and has 21 victories in the series -- showed signs of revitalization a year ago: He finished fourth in the Daytona 500, seventh at New Hampshire in the summer and had eight more top-20s. Labonte's 29th-place finish in the points was his best since 21st in 2008.
Berrier has eight Cup victories to his name as a crew chief, including one at the Daytona 500 with Kevin Harvick in 2007. He also crew chiefed Harvick's win at Indianapolis in 2003 and the driver's 2006 and '07 runs into the Chase. Berrier had been with Richard Childress Racing for nearly his entire NASCAR career until the team released him after 19 races with Burton last year.
At JTG Daugherty, Berrier takes on the added responsibility of general manager. The team used Toyota chassis from Michael Waltrip Racing and worked out of the MWR shop in its initial three seasons, but JTG Daugherty ended the alliance following the 2011 season and is operating its own facility. JTG Daugherty will start the season with holdover cars, but will be building new cars under Berrier's direction. It is using Toyota engines from Triad Racing Technologies.
Berrier also has the resources of Toyota Racing Development.
"He [Berrier] can do a lot of things that, maybe, some people can't do," Labonte said. "I've known Todd for a long time. He's got a great track record and is very successful. I never worked with him one-on-one, but he's worked on my cars before when we had problems at a short track here and there back a long time ago.
"I know he'll be able to do things that I haven't had in the past. He's the perfect fit for this organization and for this team because he can multi-task. He can make people accountable for what they need to be accountable for."
Labonte knows operating as a single-car team is a serious challenge, but says JTG Daugherty isn't entirely alone.
"It's definitely not going to be easy, but there are a lot of things that we can do as a small team that will make some differences," Labonte said. "The great support of Toyota and their facility and what they give us is like being a part of a big organization. It's just now they [team owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty] have to put the funding in to make that happen. There are a lot of good things with that [TRD] and I think that's a plus for us.
"With a small group, everybody has to pull their weight. I do believe there is a challenge for us, but at the same time, we'll have to hit everything right and if we do, then we'll have more success than not."
Sponsorship has not been a problem for the Geschickters, who operated a Nationwide team before moving into Cup and have long-term relationships with several companies.
Toyota had only two drivers, Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, in the Chase last year, but Berrier has been impressed by what TRD has to offer.
"I've only been part of virtually one racing team [Childress, which has been a flagship Chevrolet team for 30 years] my whole life and we had, what I thought, was everything [needed] to race and I thought we had more than anybody had," Berrier said. "[But] these guys have everything it takes, above and beyond anything I'm used to. The way you schedule it and the way you work on things and all that stuff is pretty cool. On our side of things, we just have to empower a group of people to be able to use that part of it."
Labonte and Berrier don't expect to contend for the Chase this season. The objective is progress.
"We're looking at a top-20 [points finish] at the end of the year for sure," Labonte said.
"My expectations are to be able to go win one of the speedway races and to run 15th to 20th every week," Berrier said. "I'm really content with that this year."
Labonte hasn't won a Cup race since 2003 and has never won the Daytona 500, Cup's season-opening race on Feb. 26.
"It's going to be quite a journey [this season]," Labonte said. "A lot of new things have happened. It's all about the journey that it's going to take us to get there. It's going to be a lot of hard work and it's going to be something that hopefully will make a difference and make an impact. We're looking forward to starting the season at Daytona.
"It's our Super Bowl, it's the race everyone wants to win. We were in the hunt last year and would like to be in a similar position this year to have a shot at winning. It's the one trophy that's missing that I would like more than anything to have and man, were we close last year."