At a time when veteran drivers are becoming a thing of the past in NASCAR, Bobby Labonte is the rare fortysomething who’s remained a fixture in the series. Indeed, the sport has changed quite a bit since the Texan captured his lone Cup title nine years ago — but one thing that hasn’t is how hard it is to win races and championships. In fact, Labonte says, it’s tougher than ever these days, evidenced by a slump of his own that’s gone on far longer than anyone might have expected. He last visited Victory Lane at Homestead in November, 2003, and has yet to make the Chase since the playoff began one year later. This season to date has been the worst of his career statistically, as he’s got just one top 10 finish and ranks 28th in the standings in his first year driving the No. 96 Ford.
Still, Labonte’s NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup titles stand as a NASCAR record — no other driver can lay claim to both. Amy Henderson sat down with Labonte to discuss whether that mark will ever be broken, why his season has been such a struggle, and how a little fun involving two brothers and a pickup truck may have been the coolest thing that’s ever happened in his life.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: You’ve come on board at Hall Of Fame/Yates Racing this year. What led to that decision?
Bobby Labonte: What led to the decision was not having a job and them calling me – pretty simple.
Henderson: What do you have to adapt or learn when you come to a new team?
Labonte: It depends on where you go. Every scenario, every team is different. These guys at Hall of Fame Racing, and now Yates Racing together, this is their second year. There’s still a lot of putting things together – it’s still relatively new. There’s a lot of chemistry that comes into play, a lot of finding out things that [both] the driver and the crew chief like. As far as gelling, we’re looking for an [upward] trend that’s week in and week out.
Henderson: What goals do you set for yourself, knowing that your team is still growing?
Labonte: No matter what, if you’re two years in or ten years in[to the series], you still have to look further down the road. We’re still gathering information that we’re trying to put together week in and week out. With the lack of testing, that makes it more difficult. According to the competition, nobody can go test, so that’s still the same for everybody — but it’s also not helping us to get there quicker than if we were to test. I feel like we’re still just trying to gather that information — and whatever race number we’re at, that’s what we have to work with. We have experience and understanding of these things before… but not together.
Henderson: Being the only driver with both a Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup championship, is it still as difficult to win in both series?
Labonte: I think it was difficult at the time because we didn’t have a lot to work with. There weren’t as many teams who were competitive… and it gets more competitive each year. It’s harder to win every year, it seems like. But we didn’t have as much [financially back then]. I’ve sat here before, with a car I’d wiped out, sitting in about the same spot, and we only had two cars left — where nowadays it’s different.
It was hard then… and it’s still hard now. The competition is a lot tougher now than it was then. But it was still hard to do what we did then. To win both of them is difficult… I kind of hope nobody else does that. Someone probably will, though.
Henderson: Do you have one race that stands out from your career?
Labonte: No, not really.
Henderson: Is shooting the truck still the coolest thing you and Terry [Labonte] ever did? (The Labontes once shot a pickup truck before taking it to the junkyard as their father requested)
Labonte: That was pretty cool, I have to admit. We’ve done a lot of cool things, but to shoot up somebody’s personal vehicle was pretty neat. Maybe we’ll get to do it again one of these days – I hope so!
Henderson: What would you have done if you hadn’t decided to drive race cars?
Labonte: I really don’t know. That’s probably why I’m not doing it – because I wouldn’t know what to do! I’d be aggravating the snot out of somebody.
Henderson: Since you have Ask.com as your sponsor – what’s the most interesting question a fan has ever asked you?
Labonte: I get a lot of people that ask me – it’s not weird, but it’s constantly – “Where’s your brother at?” And you know? I have no idea. He’s not with me today; I don’t know where he’s at! I don’t keep track of him for 24 hours a day… you put a GPS on him if you want to! The other one, I get a lot of people – and he does, too – who call me Terry and him Bobby. I don’t see the resemblance, but they see it, I guess. I’ve had people get confused when they start talking to you and next thing, they walk away and I’m sure they’re wondering what they were saying.
Henderson: What’s something that would surprise people to learn about you?
Labonte: I’m not as nice as people might think. But if you think I’m nice, maybe I’m not. If you didn’t think I was nice… that’s OK, too. I’m meaner than I look.