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Labonte, a proven winner, treated poorly by Yates

Bobby Labonte has won six races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the track next on the Sprint Cup schedule. That number of wins leads all active drivers. In fact, he is tied for third for all-time victories at Atlanta.

He’s tied with a pretty good driver, Richard Petty, and two other pretty good drivers, Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough, have won more races at Atlanta than Labonte. He also won a championship in 2000 while driving for Joe Gibbs.

Despite those impressive credentials, Labonte has been booted from his ride this weekend. Erik Darnell is replacing Labonte in the No. 96 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing Ford in seven of the final 12 races of the season. Yep, a guy with zero career starts in a Sprint Cup car is replacing a championship driver with 21 career Sprint cup victories. And it has nothing to do with ability. It’s all about sponsorship money.

Ask.com, the sponsor of the No. 96 and Labonte for the majority of the first 24 races of the season, is only obligated to sponsor the car for five of the final 12 races. Yates Racing found a sponsor, Academy Sports, to fill the gap for those seven races only if Darnell stepped in as the driver.

It’s a sign of the times: Sponsorship cash makes the wheels turn for these teams and has big-time influence on driver selection. Make no mistake, Darnell is a fine young driver and will be in a Roush Racing Ford on the Sprint Cup circuit very soon, but it is disheartening to see a class act like Labonte get treated so poorly.

Labonte did make the most of the situation and will drive the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy in those seven races. He replaces David Gilliland, who, ironically, drove for Yates Racing last season. And Gilliland will compete in several races in a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Got all that?

An official announcement came this week that Brad Keselowski will drive the No. 12 Dodge for Penske Racing next season. He will also drive a Penske car in all of the Nationwide Series events as a teammate to future star Justin Allgaier.

Did Keselowski make the right decision to forgo another season with J.R. Motorsports, under the tutelage of Rick Hendrick, in the Nationwide series only for a full time Cup ride with Penske? Time will tell, but I hope the instant gratification of the Cup deal with Penske didn’t cloud Keselowski’s judgment of a twenty-year career with the strongest team in NASCAR.

The annual Labor Day race at Darlington…oh, wait, that race is now in Atlanta after spending a few years in California. Anyway, the Pep Boys 500 is Sunday night in Atlanta, the next to the last race before the Chase field is set.

The points standings among the bubble drivers is still tight, and I still contend that Kyle Busch jumps into the Chase and Greg Biffle falls out. But, this weekend, look for Carl Edwards to win the inaugural Labor Day race at Atlanta.