NASCAR’s Silly Season is now in full swing, yet driver changes this season are still in progress. Money is the name of the game in this case, or rather the lack of it.
On Tuesday, it was announced Erik Darnell would drive the #96 Yates Hall of Fame Racing Ford at Atlanta, Loudon, Kansas, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and the season-finale in Homestead, replacing regular driver, 2000 Cup Champion Bobby Labonte. Primary sponsor Ask.com only had 2/3 of the season covered, and Darnell was brought in to bridge the 7 race gap without any backing. Northern Tool and Equipment is the new sponsor, and Darnell also has extra money from Academy Sports and Outdoors as well.
This was expected to end Labonte’s 568 consecutive race streak, but an old friend managed to save the day. He will compete in the 7 races he was previously unable to, landing a ride in the #71 TRG Chevrolet “This whole thing came together over the last 24 hours,” Labonte said. “‘Slugger’ [TRG crew chief Richard Labbe] called me yesterday morning and had an idea and wondered if I would be interested or not. I had some openings I wasn’t planning on, so it just kind of worked out.”
TRG team boss Kevin Buckler was very positive about the change; “Slugger told me to call [Bobby], I did and we had a great conversation. [Bobby] told me all the reasons why he felt performance had not been where he’d like it this year and it sounds like a lot of the areas where he thought things weren’t as good as they could have been, are good with us. We’ve got a tight little team and obviously we don’t rely too much on computer modeling and schematics that are handed to us by an engineer from 1,000 miles away. We do everything at the track and we give the driver a lot of feedback.”
Adding “We’ve got a really strong team chemistry. We’re a tight little group of guys. It’s the boys’ club thing with us, and Bobby’s our boy, now — and we’re going to make him shine. I think it’ll be mutually beneficial and we’re feeling that already.”
This left yet another driver without a ride: David Gilliland. But thankfully for him, only hours after Labonte was announced as his replacement, his season was partially back on track.
Gilliland will race the #21 Wood Brothers Ford at Atlanta this weekend, and is rumored to have a ride at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead, driving a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, plus a race with Robby Gordon‘s #7 team.
He replaces another former Cup champion Bill Elliot this weekend, who is complaining of back problems and was already a doubt for the race this weekend.
“Given the modified practice schedule where the practices and qualifying are all being done on Saturday, we didn’t feel there was enough time to make changes to the seat if Bill wasn’t comfortable and we needed to get another driver,” said team co-owner Eddie Wood.
“We called David to see if he was available. Thankfully he was and agreed to help.” he added