Labonte would be great fit at Earnhardt Ganassi, more notes

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that 2000 NASCAR Cup champion Bobby Labonte has been released from his contract at Petty Enterprises, don't be surprised to see him as the driver of the No. 41 entry at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

It'd be a great fit for both parties. Labonte would bring much-needed leadership to a lineup that will include Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola.

While Montoya has achieved racing stardom internationally in CART, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One, he is entering his third season in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. In 2007 he proved he could make the transition from the pinnacle of international motorsports to America's biggest racing series, posting an average finish of 22.7 in 36 starts, but his performance slipped in his second year of stock cars as his average finish declined.

Truex has shown tremendous promise and potential in his three full seasons of Sprint Cup racing before Dale Earnhardt, Inc. merged the Chip Ganassi Racing with Sabates' team. With the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2008, Truex was the lead full-time driver on the team as veteran Mark Martin drove a limited schedule with Almirola in the No. 01 car.

Almirola will drive that car full-time in 2009 with Martin moving over to Hendrick Motorsports.

So Labonte would bring that much-needed veteran leadership and experience to this four-car operation. Although he is a quiet driver, Labonte leads by example and played a steadying influence in his days at Joe Gibbs Racing when the team added the tempestuous Tony Stewart.

Before he left for Petty Enterprises, Labonte could always been seen as the guiding light of the team while Stewart would often provide an emotional roller-coaster ride at JGR.

With Petty Enterprises in limbo while discussions regarding a possible merger with Gillett Motorsports are ongoing, Labonte was able to get a release from his contract as driver of the No. 43 last week. That automatically makes him the prime free agent without a ride in the offseason.

The key is for Labonte to be able to land a decent ride, such as the No. 41, in a tough economic environment that is already eating away at the car count for 2009.

"In over 15 years of racing in the Sprint Cup Series, I can't remember a time when the sport's landscape looks as it does today," Labonte said. "Saying that, Petty Enterprises and I had serious and very sincere discussions about what was best for myself and everyone involved at Petty Enterprises moving forward. These discussions culminated with us agreeing that moving in a separate direction will be the greatest way to reach our end goals. It was by no means an easy decision.

"I am, and will always be, very appreciative of what Richard Petty and the Petty family, every employee of Petty Enterprises and members of Boston Ventures did to invest in bettering my career the past three seasons."

Petty Enterprises entered into an agreement with the equity firm, Boston Ventures, in 2008. But when the economy tanked, Boston Ventures had to react to changing economic conditions in order to protect its investment and that is why the team has entered into merger discussions in order to survive.

Labonte made the decision to leave rather than have his career dictated by the possible merger.

"Moving forward, I'm very anxious to prepare for the 2009 season," Labonte said. "I do not currently have a contract with any other team for 2009, but I am ready to explore all opportunities and form the next partnership in my career. I'll continue to keep these matters private and will make the appropriate announcement and comments when my future plans are confirmed. I appreciate everyone's continued support."

Labonte has 21 Sprint Cup wins, 197 top-10 and 113 top-five finishes in his career. He has only raced for four team owners, including his family's operation.

Reed Sorenson drove the No. 41 but announced midway through the 2008 season that he would be leaving that ride.

So, it would only make sense to get a driver who still has the ability to get the car up front into that car, which would help the overall four-car effort for this team in 2009.

NASCAR's testing ban goes into effect on Jan. 1, so teams are busy testing in December.

That made Las Vegas Motor Speedway a busy place last week during a two-day test session for Goodyear last week.

Tire tests will still be conducted, despite the testing ban, which will make them very valuable for the teams that are invited by the tire company to participate.

Among those testing with their new teams was 49-year-old Mark Martin at Hendrick Motorsports.

"The switch to a new team has certainly rejuvenated my career," Martin said. "It's such an honor to be wanted by this team and to be welcomed to a new team is very flattering to me. Now the pressure is really on and I will have to work hard to keep up with the other guys. It's unbelievable to be able to work with [crew chief] Alan [Gustaffson] and [team owner Rick] Hendrick. The depth and knowledge of that group is unbelievable and I am looking forward to the 2009 season. I'm a lucky dude."

Martin was joined at the two-day test by Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers and David Stremme. Edwards, who won this year's Sprint Cup event at LVMS, is hoping for a repeat performance. With NASCAR's ban on testing in 2009, Edwards hopes test sessions like these will help him back to the Winner's Circle.

"As far as testing, we would be fine if we didn't, but it is nice to have the opportunity," Edwards said. "Hopefully, these two days of testing will help us put on a lot of good races in 2009."

The four drivers were not only testing for Goodyear, but also looking to improve their chances at a posting a victory in the Shelby 427 on March 1.

"Is it possible that this test session could be an advantage?" Martin asked. "I think that any experience you can get will be a premium factor in 2009. Drivers with experience can bring a little more to the team, test session or no test session. It's about the time you've spent on the track."

There were no incidents during the two-day session.

David Stremme made his debut in the No. 12 Dodge at Penske Racing during last week's test at Las Vegas.

"I can't put a value on what we hope to accomplish here," Stremme said. "We're here testing tires for Goodyear first and foremost, but the more time I get in these cars the better. They didn't have to try very hard to get me to come and do this test. I love coming out here, and more for the track than the rest of it."

Stremme has an impressive track record at LVMS. He has the best average finish of any driver who has competed at the 1.5-mile superspeedway in the Nationwide Series. He has two third-place finishes and two fifth-place finishes. He also sat on the outside pole for the Sprint Cup event in 2007.

"I ran four Nationwide races with four different teams and finished in the top five in all of them," Stremme said. "And with the work we have put in with this team, I'm really excited about where this team is headed next year. It's already showing in the test."

The IndyCar Series received some good news from its chassis constructor last week when Dallara announced it will lower the price of parts for its IndyCar chassis in 2009.

The manufacturer plans to reduce the cost of general and specific spare parts, including items such as wishbones, wings and radiators, between eight and 20 percent. Dallara estimates the average team savings will be approximately 11 percent compared to 2008. The new prices will be available to teams when the 2009 catalog is released on Jan. 10.

"Everybody knows that this is a difficult time, and we have to do our best now to help the teams," said Andrea Toso, IndyCar Series project leader for Dallara. "If we can help the teams go through this difficult time, it is in the best interest of the manufacturers, the series and the teams. If we don't do anything now, maybe one year from now it's too late. We hope that all suppliers and partners will understand this initiative and follow suit."

A long time partner to the IndyCar Series, Dallara has been providing chassis to teams since 1997.

"In light of the current global economic crisis, to see the effort Dallara has made to help all of our teams with an across-the-board cost reduction is truly the definition of a partner," said Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations for the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series. "They are just going out of their way to do what they can to ensure the stability of the IndyCar Series beginning in 2009."

The move to reduce costs caps a frenzied IndyCar Series season for Dallara, which saw the addition of 15 new chassis to the field to meet the demand of increased car count resulting from the unification of open wheel racing less than 30 days prior to opening day.

"The ability to ramp up and supply equipment on that late of notice after unification showed their commitment to the series as well, and now what they are doing from the business side is a tremendous gesture and hopefully one that can be followed by other suppliers in the series," Barnhart said.

Jim Beam will continue its partnership with Robby Gordon Motorsports as a primary sponsor of the No. 7 driven by team owner and veteran driver Robby Gordon during the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

Jim Beam will be the primary sponsor for 13 Sprint Cup Series races in 2009, and will serve as an associate sponsor for the remaining events. The deal marks the company's fifth year of partnership with RGM, a relationship that began when Gordon created the team in 2005.

"Jim Beam has been with me since the beginning," Gordon said. "To have them back with us for a fifth straight year is exciting and a credit to everyone here at RGM. It's challenging being one of the few single-car teams remaining and yet, we have shown we can still be competitive. With Jim Beam's continued support for the No. 7 team, we can focus on improving our race program and build our way towards a successful 2009 season."

Jim Beam will sponsor Gordon at Daytona, California, Las Vegas, Texas, Talladega, the All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600, Michigan, Chicagoland, Atlanta, Richmond, Phoenix and the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Marco Andretti re-signed with Andretti Green Racing to drive the No. 26 entry, while E.J. Viso re-signed with HVM Racing to drive the No. 33 car. Andretti finished seventh in the IndyCar Series point standings in 2008, his fourth season and ranked fourth among all drivers with 330 laps led. The 21-year old son of team owner Michael Andretti scored four podium and six top-five finishes in 2008, including a third in the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 -- his second top-three finish at Indy in just three starts. "I'm really looking forward to 2009 at Andretti Green," Marco Andretti said. "As a team, we have a lot to prove next year, and I want to be a big part of that. I learned a lot last year that I can build on going forward and have every reason to believe that we can be a factor all year long." Andretti will be teammates with 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, 2008 Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year Hideki Mutoh and 2005 Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick. "It's good to get Marco's contract done," team, owner and father Michael Andretti said. "He is a big part of the future of our team and is someone that we expect big things from in 2009. As a team, we are working very hard to improve our entire program for next season, and Marco will play a big role in everything we achieve."

Viso, 23, proved in 2008 to be one of the best young drivers in the IndyCar Series. The rookie recorded seven top-10 finishes, including a season-best fourth on the Streets of St. Petersburg. "Well, most people knew it was coming, but everything had to be put in place," team owner Keith Wiggins said. "This is a natural progression and a sensible move for both team and driver. It will actually be the first time since 2004 that we have the continuity of retaining the same driver for a second season. That in itself shows a positive picture for our team and the single open-wheel series. We are delighted to continue with E.J going into our second IndyCar Series season and believe that together we can make big strides in 2009."

HVM Racing plans to add a second car to its program in 2009. The team also will expand with a Firestone Indy Lights program. "I am very pleased to stay with HVM for 2009," Viso said. "We had a good season in 2008 given that it was our 'learning' year, and having continuity is a good thing to pursue our progression towards the top. The team is working on upping our game, and our plans to enter a second car are very close to be completed. This obviously will be a big plus."

IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has been honored by the British Racing Drivers' Club as the recipient of the 2008 Bruce McLaren Trophy. The trophy is awarded annually to the Commonwealth driver who has established the most meritorious performances in international motor racing. Dixon also received the honor during his 2003 IndyCar Series championship season.

"I think it's fantastic and a big honor to win the Bruce McLaren Trophy," Dixon said. "The BRDC is a very prestigious club, and to be noticed as the best Commonwealth international driver is something I will never forget. I also have to that Dick Bennetts for receiving the award on my behalf."

The trophy was originally presented to Bruce McLaren for finishing in second place in the 1965 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport. After McLaren passed away in 1970, his widow, Patty, presented it to the BRDC to give to the best Commonwealth driver of each year.

McLaren was born in Auckland, New Zealand. Dixon was born in Australia but grew up in Auckland.

IndyCar Series driver Jay Howard won the third annual PRI All-Stars Karting Classic Dec. 11 in Orlando, Fla. Howard, the 2006 Firestone Indy Lights champion who competed in five IndyCar Series events as a rookie in 2008, took the checkers with a 3.203-second advantage after 40 laps on the seven-turn, .25-mile course at the Orange County Convention Center. "The race wasn't easy by any means, but we were unchallenged the whole time," Howard said. "I got in the lead and led the whole way. There are a lot of top drivers from different series there, so it's nice to kind of make a point that I think I'm good enough to get a ride (in the IndyCar Series in 2009)."

Eight other IndyCar Series drivers competed in the Masters Division event, including Buddy Rice (9th), Alex Tagliani (10th), Dan Wheldon (13th), Ryan Hunter-Reay (15th), Ed Carpenter (23rd), Will Power (24th), Townsend Bell (25th) and Vitor Meira (26th).

A.J. Foyt Racing hired Adam Schaechter as the team's chief engineer. Schaechter's first day with the team was Dec. 1. Schaechter worked in the Champ Car World Series from 1999-2004 and 2006-07 and with chassis manufacturer Swift in 2005. "It's always a bit of an unknown as to how everyone will communicate, but I was impressed with the way A.J. [Foyt], Vitor [Meira] and Adam worked so well together," team director Larry Foyt said after the team tested Dec. 9 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Adam seems like he fits right in with our group. I'm excited about our team's potential for the season."

"I am ready to capture my first win in NASCAR." -- Three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. on his struggles as a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie in 2008.