(Bobby Labonte replaced Marcos Ambrose in the No. 47 car last season but the team still struggled during the year)
Veteran Bobby Labonte took the reigns of the JTG Daugherty ride on a full-time basis in 2011 with the hope of bringing the team to the next level of competition.
Unfortunately even Labonte’s experience behind the wheel couldn’t help the organization improve on its 2010 effort and a myriad of mechanical issues and engine woes were the main culprits for the team’s mediocre performance.
Labonte finished twenty ninth in the final Sprint Cup Series point standings and recorded one top five and a couple of top tens along the way.
The highlight of the campaign came at the season-opening Daytona 500, where Labonte finished fourth and ran in the front of the pack most of the afternoon. Despite the solid finish, Labonte was disappointed after the race.
“It means a lot and people may criticize me for not laughing or smiling enough, but I am disappointed we didn’t win this Daytona 500,” Labonte said. “That’s going to bother me probably for a little bit. I’m proud of the team because they did a great job today. We battled back from a near spin over there and we got a top-five out of it. Today was such a wild day. It was just a little bit too wild at times so to survive here today, I think it was a big thing.”
Unfortunately the performance did not set the tone for the rest of the campaign. Labonte struggled to find any consistency and the rash of engine misfortunes didn’t help the cause for the No. 47 Toyota entry.
“It’s been frustrating at times for sure,” said Labonte. “Our relationship with Toyota has been a good one but overall the entire company has had these engine challenges whether it be us, MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing), Gibbs or whoever. Hopefully we can get this rectified and have a better full season next year and not have to worry about motor problems along with other things.”
Labonte will enter the new season with pretty much a completely overhauled race team.
Although JTG Daugherty will remain in the Toyota camp and continue its alliance with MWR, the organization has moved into its own facility and no longer shares space with Waltrip’s operation.
"I think what we gain, and what's been very import to us, is our own identity," co-owner Brad Daugherty said. "It's tough. It hurts almost to be called a satellite team, or Michael Waltrip's stepchild, or all that kind of stuff. Because we're our own race team. So it's important to us, because we spend a lot of money on this, we work hard to be the best product we can. So we get our identity back."
There will also be a new crew chief and team general manager calling the shots with veteran Todd Berrier, a former Richard Childress Racing staple, replacing Frankie Kerr to come on board to call the shots.
“Todd Berrier is a winner, pure and simple,” Daugherty said. “He is innovative, an effective communicator, great with race cars and knows how to use the resources available to him to optimize performance. We are confident that he is the right individual to lead our race team into the future.”
As for the engine issues that plagued the effort in 2011, JTG Daugherty is confident remaining with Toyota and working closer with TRD (Toyota Racing Development) on the program will reap benefits.
“Toyota has been a great partner to us in both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series,” stated co-owner Tad Geschickter. “They provide tremendous resources through TRD’s chassis engineering group in Salisbury, N.C. and we intend to fully utilize the tools that they provide to improve our performance as we move forward in 2012 and beyond.”
The revamp of the team has Labonte thinking positively and optimistically for the coming campaign.
“I like the plan that this team has in place and if you look at the choices I’ve made throughout my career, you can tell that I have always enjoyed the challenge of building up a team,” Labonte said. “We have some people with proven success coming to work with us and we plan to capitalize on that along with the technical resources of Toyota. We’ve had some limited success this year and we are focused on improving and continuing to build our program. I am looking forward to a successful 2012.”
While the changes in management as well as moving out from under the shadow of MWR are encouraging, JTG Daugherty still faces an uphill battle to contend for wins or a Chase berth next season. The successful outings last year were too sporadic to provide any indication the team is ready to take a step forward in the Sprint Cup Series pecking order. Labonte and Berrier bring an experienced combination to the track every week and the enthusiasm over Toyota finally getting the engine misfortunes straightened out is most certainly good news. But JTG Daugherty seems destined to remain a middle of the pack organization at best in 2012.
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