Bobby Labonte may have retired from NASCAR Cup Series competition after the fall Talladega race in 2016, but his days behind the wheel are far from done. After making several starts across the pond in the NASCAR Euro Series, the NASCAR Hall of Famer first jumped into Tour-Type Modifieds for a show at Bowman-Gray Stadium in 2019
Fast forward two years later, and Labonte is now going full-time Modified racing with the SMART Modified Tour. He filled in as a substitute driver for Mike and John Smith at Florence Motor Speedway last November after John tested positive for COVID-19 and could not attend the race, finishing fourth after setting a track record in qualifying.
It was that start a few months back that has since led to a full-time deal in 2021.
“I didn’t expect this to happen last year. I was at home doing yard work or something and I got a call from Mike Andretti (Smith) and John (Smith) had COVID and couldn’t drive the car and they asked me to go,” Labonte said on Speed51’s “The Bullring.” I thought about it for a minute and called him back and I came down to sit in the seat and it fit perfect.
“We went down there and ran and once we settled in after we got done a week or so later, we talked some more about doing it this year. That’s how that all transformed into it, through getting a sponsor with Cookout and getting some things together to run this year. It’s an awesome car and awesome people, which makes it easier when you’re driving for someone like Andretti.”
Labonte led laps during Sunday’s opener at Caraway Speedway and was in contention late in the 99-lap event. He was running third in the final corner before getting loose and sliding into the infield wall. He would lose several spots in the process but still came out with a ninth-place finish.
“There was a lot of hard racing, good racing. The whole race was exciting and a lot of fun, I enjoyed it. You get down to the end and everybody’s trying to go for the win, things like that happen. Fortunately, we didn’t get tore up too bad but we were hoping to finish in the top-three. All in all it was a great day and I think the fans enjoyed it.”
With just two races under his belt going into Sunday’s opener at Caraway, Labonte felt like that race was the best he had felt in a Modified. He was at the track that helped kickstart his career in NASCAR, having won the Late Model Stock track championship at Caraway in 1987.
While the facility has largely remained the same in the 30-plus years since winning that track title, the Modified threw a new challenge at Labonte.
“It was way different, not just with cars but it’s been a lot of year since then to now. The track hadn’t changed a lot, the characteristics were the same. Just the horsepower, back in the Late Model Stock days that was a totally different race car. This thing’s got so much power and more tire, and a lot of driver characteristics that I didn’t think about a whole lot driving Late Models there.
“With 50 to 100 lap races you didn’t really have to save your tires. That was the biggest difference, you had to save your right rear tire. You couldn’t really burn it off in a Late Model Stock because you didn’t really have all that much power. It’s definitely a different style and the characteristic of that is different.”
Along with the full SMART Modified schedule, Labonte and the team are not ruling out other possible races in 2021. One race they have their eye on is the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour opener at Martinsville Speedway, a track Labonte has won at in all three NASCAR national series’.
With a SMART race at South Boston Speedway just five days before the Whelen Modified Tour event at Martinsville, he says it will more than likely be a last-minute decision whether to make the trip.
“It’s a short week and everybody’s got full-time jobs, so I think if we pull the trigger it would have to be late. It depends on how things go this weekend and we’ll go from there. I’d love to, I love Martinsville. You never know, but we don’t have unlimited funds and everyone’s got jobs so you have to balance that out with what does it cost and can everyone get off work, especially on a Thursday. I’d love to go, we’ll just have to see if the cards work for everyone else to go.”
Saturday’s SMART Modified Tour event at Florence Motor Speedway will be live on Speed51.TV for premium subscribers. Click here to watch Saturday’s race on Speed51.TV.
-Story by: Koty Geyer, Speed51 National Correspondent – Twitter: @kgeyer3