Perhaps more importantly, he’s also having the time of his life.
I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been a good ride,” said Labonte on The Bullring. “Last year, we didn’t get to race very much. I’m really enjoying it, getting to do some Saturday night short track racing in front of packed houses has been fun. It takes me back to my Late Model Stock days at Caraway and Concord.
Both wins came at new tracks for Labonte – and most racers taking part in the SMART Modified Tour, for that matter. However, Labonte was able to lean on his past experiences at other tracks to put together winning combinations.
At Dillon, the abrasive surface at the South Carolina track reminded him of another Palmetto State short track, Florence Motor Speedway. It also reminded him of a familiar South Carolina track from his NASCAR days.
“I hadn’t been there, and a lot of guys hadn’t been there in a while or at all, for both tracks. It was a new track for the SMART Modified Tour. It’s not like going to Caraway three times in one year. I’m just sitting there in my mind, thinking about Dillon, Darlington, Florence, it’s going to be lacking some grip.”
With tire management in mind and a timely caution to help the cause, Labonte charged to the victory.
“We tried to manage our tires as best we could. We did a pretty good job if the race had gone green. They had a caution and we didn’t pit. If we hadn’t gotten another caution, we would have finished eighth or ninth. We got the caution, put a new right-rear on it, and that was all the difference.”
The following week, the series went to Carteret County Speedway, which had an abundance of grip compared to Dillon. Carteret County is also much flatter than Dillon, presenting a new set of challenges.
“That track has a lot of grip. They put some PJ1 on the top side,” explained Labonte. “I had never been there before, it felt pretty flat. I reminisced on different tracks I had been to in my career. Even this year, I went to Kil-Kare. The whole track wasn’t the same, but one corner was the same. Then there’s Oxford, Lanier, this one track in Europe.
“I ran as hard as I could to see if it did or not. Luckily, we caught a caution right, and we were able to pass Jeremy [Gerstner] for the win with about three to go.”
Of course, the fun hasn’t been limited to just the SMART Modified for Labonte. There was also the CRA/JEGS All-Stars Tour appearance at Kil-Kare Speedway, as well as taking part in the inaugural season of the Camping World SRX Series.
Labonte admitted to not knowing what to expect from the first year of the Superstar Racing Experience, but came away impressed with every aspect of the season, on and off the track.
“Those guys were working so hard to get cars done and finished up. When you got to the track, there was some unforeseen as far as being organized or ready. They had it all planned out, they had it all organized. After the first lap of practice, that was not a worry. It was great.
“All in all, you check the boxes and every one hit the highest mark. The fun meter, the competition meter, the bringing-back-memories meter, short track racing in front of crowds and the autograph signings we did. I didn’t think I could have had that much fun during a six-week summer break.
Six races remain on the SMART Modified Tour schedule. However, Labonte is already eyeing other opportunities to get behind the wheel beyond those dates to keep the good times rolling.
“We’re working on a Late Model venture, maybe at Nashville before the year is over. Hopefully we can get that sewed up here before long. I’m having fun putting on a helmet. I’m having a good time, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51 Director of Digital Content – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo