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Yates Racing will replace 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte in its No. 96 Ford with Roush Fenway Nationwide Series driver Erik Darnell in seven of the remaining 12 Sprint Cup Series races in 2009, team co-owner Max Jones told ESPN.com on Monday.
The decision, Jones said, is neither a reflection on Labonte, nor the team. Rather, he said, it's the latest example of how teams must adapt in a difficult economy.
"There's an opportunity here, where I had races that we were on hook for, basically trying to find sponsorship for Bobby and put it together," Jones said. "And there's an opportunity with Erik to get it. We'd like to take a look at him, and Ford Racing would, too. So this is an opportunity to help fund [the team], and give Erik a chance to see if he can do his business in Sprint Cup."
Darnell will debut in the No. 96 Ford this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and plans to run Loudon, Kansas, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, as well."This is a move that will be beneficial to Yates Racing surviving this difficult economic time," Labonte said in a statement. "Of course, I'm disappointed that the sponsorship environment is so challenging right now, but I intend to make the most out of the remaining races that I'm behind the wheel."
That leaves Richmond, Dover, Fontana, Charlotte and Martinsville for Labonte, who Jones called a "class act."
"He's a champion and a really smart guy," Jones said. "He's not happy about it. When I was a driver, I wanted to drive every day, too. But he has these five races left, and the opportunity to do really well. He's still working with the team, and working on stuff to make it better."
Jones said Yates Racing is working hard on 2010, as well. He said Paul Menard will be back in the No. 98 Ford, and that Yates wants to run two cars. In fact, he said, they'd rather run three, and mentioned Jamie McMurray as a potential driver in a third car. The main issue is dollars to fund it.
"We're still looking for money," Jones said. "This is an opportunity to shake things up, and get some new sponsors on our cars and a different driver in them. This, hopefully, puts us on the map a little bit more.
"It's a money deal, and a good look at Erik. Maybe other teams that do start-and-park can run white cars, but I'm not in a position to do that. I don't want to do that if I have the opportunity to do something different."
Jones ran a third car at the outset of 2009 with driver Travis Kvapil. They performed well, but were unable to find proper funding to continue on.
The economy "is not news," Jones said. "The economy has been tough all year. I ran a white car at beginning of the year and ran really well with Travis in it, and couldn't find money. I'm not only guy having problems like this, finding right amount of sponsorship to fund programs. If you don't mix it up and do things a little different, you may never find it."Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.