After seeing his ironman-like streak of 704 consecutive starts snapped when he was left without a ride for this past Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Kentucky, Bobby Labonte starts a new streak in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Labonte’s streak, which dated back to the start of the 1993 season – that’s 20 years! – was snapped when AJ Allmendinger replaced him in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota Camry at Kentucky.
It was Allmendinger’s second appearance for JTGD; he also raced for the team at Michigan in mid-June. Allmendinger is slated to be behind the wheel of the No. 47 for up to five races for the team to give it essentially a second opinion – some might call it a fresh take – on how to improve the team’s cars.
Labonte managed to keep his streak going at Michigan when he jumped into the available seat of James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet. But there were no open rides to be had at Kentucky, and Labonte was left on the sidelines as nothing more than a mere spectator. Prior to Kentucky, Labonte had the second-longest streak of consecutive starts among active drivers: Jeff Gordon has 706 now.
After being as high as 14th in the season standings after the first two races of 2013, the 2000 Cup champion has slipped to 30th in the Cup rankings heading into Daytona.
But on the flip side, Daytona has been one of Labonte’s better tracks: he finished 15th there in this year’s season-opening Daytona 15. All told, Labonte’s career scorecard at the 2.5-mile high-banked track includes six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, along with leading 70 laps over a span of 41 starts there.
His best year at Daytona came in 1998 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He not only won the pole for both Cup races there that season, he also finished second in both races, career bests for the veteran driver from Corpus Christi, Texas.
“It’s great to be back in the No. 47 Scott Products Toyota Camry at Daytona International Speedway after a weekend off,” Labonte said in a statement released by the team. “I am looking forward to racing at Daytona. I know we will not practice a lot. We will probably do a couple shake down runs and that’s all. We will not need much practice.”
Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series
More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.
Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.
“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.
“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”
This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.
“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.
“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”
This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.
“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”
At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.
“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”
Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.
“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”
Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.
“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.
“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”