CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte won't race this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his best track, because of sponsorship issues at Yates Racing.
The team had seven races to sell this season for the No. 96 Ford, and the sponsorship it secured wanted Erik Darnell in the car. The 26-year-old will make his Sprint Cup Series debut at Atlanta, where Labonte has six career victories.
"This is not about Bobby; it's about making sure we have funding for these races," Yates co-owner Max Jones said Monday. "If it was about Bobby, I would have just put Erik in the car for the rest of the year. That was hard to convey to Bobby.
"But we have this opportunity to get Erik some races, and that's the business part of this sport. It's challenging."
Academy Sports & Outdoors will sponsor Darnell for three races, at Atlanta, Talladega and Texas. Northern Tool Equipment, his current sponsor in the Truck Series, will be on the car at New Hampshire and Kansas.
Sponsorship for the other two races Darnell is slated to run was not announced.
Jones said Labonte did not take the decision well.
"I wouldn't have either if I was him," Jones said. "He's a class act, he's a professional.
"I had to explain my side, why I was doing it, and he wasn't happy about it. But he understood, and I respect that."
Labonte, the 2000 series champion, left Petty Enterprises last season because he was unsure of its long-term stability. He put together a late deal with Hall of Fame Racing, the team owned by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad and president Tom Garfinkel.
Garfinkel and Moorad were able to land a sponsorship deal with Ask.com, one of the only new companies to enter NASCAR since last fall's economic collapse, and then partnered with Yates Racing for equipment and technical support. The Ask.com deal is a one-year deal and covered only 29 of the 36 races.
Jones worked hard to fill the car, but ultimately was able to sell the potential in Darnell over the history of Labonte.
Labonte, who is 45, is in the midst of his sixth winless season. He's 30th in the standings with one top-10 finish this season. Teammate Paul Menard is 32nd in the points with no top-10 finishes. He has full sponsorship from his family's Midwest-based hardware chain.
The team also fielded a car for Travis Kvapil for four races but stopped when no sponsorship was found.