Labonte has major decision to make about future at Petty Enterprises

Bobby Labonte, left, would love to breathe life back into the No. 43 team for owner Richard Petty. AP Photo/John Raoux

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bobby Labonte steadied himself over a putt on the 18th green at the Ballantyne Resort in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this week. He was intent on draining the 15-footer, if not because of his very competitive nature, then to make sure his 14-year-old son in the foursome didn't give him grief for wasting his best approach shot of the day.

He came up short.

By almost 2 feet.

Labonte has been coming up short a lot lately. He wrecked at Bristol while running 17th with one of the fastest cars on the track. He wrecked a week later at Martinsville while running third, then was caught up in the big wreck last weekend at Talladega while running 11th.

With a little luck he easily could be 15th or better in the Sprint Cup standings, not far from the top 12 who will compete for the title over the final 10 races.

Instead, he's 22nd heading into Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway, where in 1993 he won his first Cup pole.

Most in the garage say Labonte is as good as he was in 2000, when he won the championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. Put him in a good car, they say, and he'll be a legitimate contender for the Chase for the Cup.

Which begged the question on this unusually cold, windy spring day: How did one leave the comfort and security of JGR, as Labonte did after the 2005 season, to go to Petty Enterprises, which hasn't won a race since 1999 and has won only four since 1984?

"Ah, ask them nicely," Labonte quipped.

He paused, and in a more serious tone, tried to explain.

"Why would I want to leave?" said Labonte, whose contract expires at the end of 2008. "Well, sometimes it just becomes time. I don't know how to explain it. But if for some reason or the other, if I'm not in my heart as happy as I want to be and it's not people that individually make you unhappy or happy, sometimes you need a change."

Labonte believes former teammate Tony Stewart is going through similar emotions as he considers whether to stay with JGR after his contract expires.

Stewart already has several offers, even though his contract with JGR runs through 2009. One includes ownership with Haas CNC Racing, an organization that in many ways is in no better shape than Petty Enterprises. He says he has to consider all of his options.

Labonte --who was under the microscope again with speculation he would leave Petty for Richard Childress Racing before sources confirmed Saturday he has agreed to terms to stayc -- understands Stewart's situation..

"I see Tony going through probably what I went through with him a little bit," Labonte said. "I'm not saying it's Kyle [Busch] or Denny's [Hamlin]. But I understand.

"Top dog. Not top dog. That's not saying he's not top dog now, 'cause he is. But when I was there, I was top dog. When he came in, he became top dog."

Spotlight to shadows
Labonte spent most of this day in a golf cart overlooking the final hole. He was there to help sink a putt and pose for a picture with those who came to raise money for his foundation, which pocketed more than $100,000 for the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children.

For the most part he was out of the spotlight, just as he was after Stewart established himself at JGR, and just as Stewart has been to a lesser degree since the arrival of Hamlin and Busch.

Not that Labonte left JGR -- where he collected all 21 of his Cup wins and had all of his Cup success -- simply because Stewart stole the spotlight. But he was envious of Stewart's success, particularly with his team struggling.

Stewart won 12 times between 2002 and 2005. Labonte won three times and finished outside the top 10 in three of the four seasons.

"I always wanted to be -- I'm not going to say like him, because there are things that he does that I go, 'You shouldn't have done that' -- but I know how he is deep down inside more than a lot of people," Labonte said.

"I enjoyed the heck out of him as a teammate. I just wish I could have been better. What kept me from being better were the changes we made with the team to be like the 20 car. We just never could get there."

One of those changes included moving Labonte's longtime crew chief, Jimmy Makar, to the team manager role in 2003. Labonte admitted their close friendship took a beating a year earlier when they finished 16th in points while Stewart won his first title.

"That's the biggest part of the equation that money can't buy, that chemistry," Labonte said. "We lost steam, and we tried to find it and we never found it.

"That's when you say, 'Well, could I be better somewhere else? Could I be more successful or more happy?'"

Stewart could be at a similar crossroads, whether it is driven by the desire to be a team owner or the unquestioned top dog again.

"There could be some similarities," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "But it's a little different with Tony because of this ownership thing."

There's also no doubt Stewart has taken a backseat to his teammates lately.

In 2006, Hamlin won twice and finished third in the points standings. Stewart missed the 10-race playoff and finished 11th.

This season, Hamlin has a victory and is fourth in the standings. Newcomer Busch has won twice in the Cup series -- seven times between Cup, Nationwide and Trucks -- and is second in points.

Stewart is winless and ninth in points.

"It's definitely different for him now," Labonte said.

Gibbs doesn't believe that's driving Stewart away.

"The more successful guys you have, that kind of brings up everyone's level of performance, I think," he said. "Denny wants to do well. Kyle wants to do well. Tony wants to do well. So it kind of makes them all want to do well."

But if Stewart does leave after next season, Gibbs hopes the split goes as well as Labonte's.

"You couldn't ask for a better separation than that," he said. "He had some options he was really looking at for the long term. … He had a chance to go to teams that weren't struggling. You weigh that out and see what makes the best sense. He really appreciated Richard and Kyle and what they stood for in the sport."

Decisions, decisions
Madison Labonte, 10, walked over to her dad holding a glass full of money she earned in tips while playing the piano during the lunch portion of this fundraiser.

"Remember, it's all for the kids," the elder Labonte said.

Labonte came to Petty Enterprises hoping to turn around the most storied organization in NASCAR history in the No. 43 that owner Richard Petty drove to 200 victories.

It wasn't for money. It wasn't for fame and fortune. If that were the case, he would have gone to one of the other teams pursuing him.

He still wants to be the person who turns things around, which is why Petty and vice president of racing operations Robbie Loomis have insisted he'll re-sign a deal to end his career in the 43 car.

Labonte, who will turn 44 on Thursday, says they have no reason to believe otherwise.

"I don't want it to take two or three or four years," he said. "I want it to happen today. I would love to be the guy. If it can happen sooner than later, it's better. I'm not a skip-around guy, anyway."

But not once since speculation of his departure began before the second race -- and increased when it was announced his primary sponsor [General Mills] was going to RCR's fourth team next season -- has Labonte squelched speculation by saying he's staying.

He wouldn't do it this time, either, although he admitted he knew what he was doing.

"I could say that and nobody would believe me," Labonte said. "I could say, 'Yep, I'm leaving in three weeks and they'd say, 'Nah, he can't be telling the truth.' Sometimes you're doomed at the beginning of the question."

Labonte hopes the speculation hasn't doomed his team. He admits it began as a huge distraction, one that royally ticked him off when he first read it on the Internet.

"I was, 'Where did that come from?'" Labonte said. "Nobody knows a freaking thing other than the people that are involved. So it's only speculation, and as far as I'm concerned, only speculation can do nothing but hinder the team more than help it."

Labonte is sure Stewart's team is going through the same thing. Gibbs had to call a team meeting last week just to make sure everybody was on the same page.

"You do have an element that those things can fire a team up," Labonte said. "But you've got to have the right situation, too. You've got to have people in the right places. You've got to have people energizing the negative and spinning it into a positive.

"When you're just inching forward, and then all of a sudden, boom, it knocks you back four steps on the ladder, it's hard to get back those four steps."

Labonte has been trying to gain steps since leaving JGR. He hasn't had a top-5 finish since Martinsville in 2006, a span of 49 races. He hasn't won since the finale at Homestead in 2003. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in points since '03, and he's finished outside the top 12 every year since '04.

To put that into perspective, Labonte had 17 top-10s and 13 top-5s in the first 24 races of the 2000 season. In 1999, when he finished second in points to Dale Jarrett, he had an amazing 23 top-5s and 26 top-10s.

So he knows how to drive. He knows how to win. That's why Petty Enterprises has made him an integral part of the decision-making process, such as moving the shop from Level Cross, N.C., to Mooresville, N.C., to be closer to NASCAR's talent base.

Gibbs said Labonte can be the same driver he was in 1999 and 2000 with the right equipment and chemistry, and that the recent crashes are nothing more than racing incidents.

"It was crazy how dominant we were [in '99 and '00]," Gibbs said. "You can look back and say that doesn't happen very often, period. Going forward, you are kind of always measured off of that. But the reality is Bobby can still drive a race car.

"He hasn't lost anything."

RCR owner Richard Childress agreed, reminding that points leader Jeff Burton hadn't won a race in three years when he signed him from Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 and that skeptics were saying the late Dale Earnhardt had lost it in the mid-1990s.

"Bobby's still got it," he said. "It's just a matter of getting him in the right combination, but he can still drive. He's run good in the Nationwide car for us."

Mark Martin said Labonte has done an "exceptional job," perhaps his way of politely saying few could do better in the equipment the Pettys are providing.

Burton respects Labonte for taking on the challenge he has.

"You put Bobby Labonte in a fast car, and Bobby Labonte will go fast in it," he said. "I believe that in my heart."

Labonte isn't confident in his ability to consistently sink 15-foot putts, but he is in his ability to drive.

"Is my head up against the wall, and can I be successful here?" he asked. "Time will tell. I don't have a crystal ball. But I can say we're trying awfully hard to try to make it happen and grow the strength of the team."

That the No. 45 car driven by Kyle Petty has missed several races and is struggling outside the top 35 hasn't helped. Making a go of it with a two-car operation is tough enough. When you're the lone dog on weekends, it's even tougher.

"The competitive thing, that's the hard part," Labonte said.

All Labonte really wants is to be competitive. The good news, he said, is he's not at a point in this season or his career where he has to make a career-changing decision.

But he does know the importance of making the right decision. He's sure Stewart does as well.

"There are probably times when I've said, 'Hmm. Why did I leave Gibbs?'" Labonte said. "Sometimes you look at it like, 'Was that the right decision or wrong?' I don't know.

"But it was a decision I felt like I needed to make in my heart, and I feel like that's where Tony's at."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.