15 years ago, Bobby Labonte was on top of the world. He finished fourth in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the Sprint Cup Championship, the crown jewel of his career. At the time, there was no reason to believe that the victories wouldn’t continue to stack up and another championship was certainly in play.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be. Beyond 2000, Labonte racked up five more victories, but the overall performance fell off. He slipped to 24th in points in 2002. The last of his victories was the first race on the current configuration of Homestead-Miami Speedway, and 2003 was also the last year Labonte finished in the top 10 in points. Two years of relative mediocrity while teammate Tony Stewart won his first championship led Labonte to leave Joe Gibbs Racing and move over to Richard Petty Motorsports to take over the No. 43. Even though Petty Enterprises was viewed as a step down at the time as compared to JGR, Labonte improved slightly, finishing 18th in points in 2007.
After leaving Petty Enterprises, the musical chairs began. First, he moved to Hall of Fame Racing when they obtained sponsorship from Ask.com. By the end of the year, he’d moved to TRG Motorsports. Midway through 2010, Labonte left TRG and split time between Phoenix Racing, the startup Stavola Labonte Racing team and Robby Gordon’s No. 7 before landing with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Today, Labonte races part-time with Go FAS Racing with sponsorship from C&J Energy Services at the restrictor plate events only. It is a deal that his older brother Terry had prior to his retirement. Last weekend, the 2000 Winston Cup Champion sat down with Frontstretch to discuss his present and future on the track and on television.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: This is your third race of the season with Go FAS Racing. Last year, this was your brother’s ride for the restrictor-plate races. How did this deal end up coming together for you?
Bobby Labonte, No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford: I’ve known Frankie (Stoddard, team co-owner) for a long time. Me, Frankie and Archie [St. Hilaire] conversed last fall. Then, our sponsor, C&J Energy Services, is a friend of ours; me and Terry, and Frankie too. They sponsored [Terry] for years. This deal came about when Terry told him that he wasn’t going to race anymore. So, he just asked me to do it.
Allaway: You only have the four plate races in the No. 32 this year. Are you comfortable with only doing those four races, or would you prefer to have a little more on your plate?
Labonte: There have been some offers to run other cars, but I really didn’t want to mess these guys up. I want to run these four races as good as I can for Go FAS Racing, and then next year, we’ll see what happens.
I’m not sure what I’ll do. There are other things that I might do. It might not even be in NASCAR, but I’m just not sure yet.
Allaway: In addition to your part-time racing schedule, you’ve been doing some on-air work with NBCSN on NASCAR America. How did that come together? Someone threw your name into a hat out of nowhere?
Labonte: Yep. Last year about this time, I was overseas and got to talking to somebody. I [ended up talking to Jeff Binkie and the folks at NBCSN. They asked if I’d be interested. I [said yes] and I’ve been able to do a few of them and I’ve got plans for more, so I’m excited about that.
That’s kind of a role to be part of racing, yet you don’t have to be in [the garage]. I’ve known the sport for a long time and I’ve seen a lot happen, and hopefully I can tell a good storyline for people to hear that would be interesting and truthful to the fact of what I’ve felt over the last 20-odd years and especially here of late of what the racing is today for the fans. I hope to make a difference and give fans a little bit of insight on something they might not have known.
Allaway: How would you evaluate your performance on NASCAR America?
Labonte: I don’t know. I watch some of them, but I’ve never watched all of them. You just do what you’re comfortable with. Learn as much as you can, but at the same time, it’s what I am. I feel like they’re OK; I’ve had a few people tell me that. I haven’t had anybody tell me I was silly yet.
Tim Barile, Go Green Racing PR rep: I think you suck.
Labonte: Well, there’s one.
Allaway: Any possibility of a race commentary slot with NBCSN, either with standalone Xfinity races or K&N East or anything like that?
Labonte: It depends on NBC and what they want to do. They’ve got a pretty good lineup right now. Our schedule, even though it’s only four races a year is still quite a bit. It’s not like I can commit to them 100%. If I were able to commit to them 100%, it might be something different, but I won’t be able to do that until the end of the year because I have some other stuff that I’m doing. But, we’ll see. You never know.
Allaway: You’re doing four races this year with months off in-between. Is it a little harder to get back into the rhythm of racing, as opposed to doing it full-time?
Labonte: No, actually I get good rest. It’s not a big deal. Restrictor-plate racing is just the way it is. If I were going to Charlotte, it would be different.
Allaway: Earlier this year, you finished 24th here in February and 27th at Talladega. How would you describe those races?
Labonte: We were OK. In Daytona, I think we could have been a little better, but the virtue of the end of the race, we ended up at the wrong place at the right time (or the right place at the wrong time). We had a rough week leading up to the Daytona 500. We tore up a couple of cars, got into the Daytona 500 and kind of stayed right there to finish 24th, which wasn’t all that bad.
We got to Talladega and we were faster than [at Daytona]. But, the race got single-file at the end. We were moving up, but some of those guys were moving forward faster than we were. You can’t pass on a restrictor-plate [track] by yourself. We were coming up, then Danica [Patrick] and others pulled out to try to go forward. We lost a stall and couldn’t get back in line and had to feather out. We finished 27th, but we could have easily finished 15th, 16th. But, it just so happened to turn out that way. We ran a little bit better than we finished.
Allaway: Do you actually miss competing full-time in Cup?
Labonte: If I had a chance to run full-time in competitive equipment week in, week out like I have had in the past that would be one thing. But, when you’re not in the top 20, for instance, and you really can’t build on that, it’s much harder. If I could have that opportunity, that would be wonderful. I’m not going to have that opportunity, so it doesn’t matter. If you’re not going to have that opportunity, then it doesn’t make sense at my age to compete full-time, 38 weeks a year if you can’t be in the top 20-ish.
Sadly, Sunday night did not turn out to be a very good night for Labonte. Just three laps into the race, a crash broke out towards the front when David Gilliland turned across the front of Clint Bowyer’s Toyota. That created a mess entering the tri-oval. Labonte was running towards the back having started in 38th and simply had nowhere to go. The No. 32 was wedged into the wall, then spun across the track and hit Gilliland. Unfortunately, the damage was too much to bear and Labonte was out of the race, forced to settle for a 43rd-place finish.
From here, Labonte has one more race in the No. 32 this season (Talladega in October). Beyond that, the future in driving is somewhat hazy for the 51-year old veteran. He may be back for more in 2016, he may not. Stay tuned.
For Go FAS Racing, their driver schedule is somewhat unclear going forward. In addition to Labonte driving at Talladega, Boris Said is likely to return at Watkins Glen with Genesse Brewing Company sponsoring with the Genny Light brand. This weekend, Will Kimmel will attempt to make his Sprint Cup Series debut with the team at Kentucky.
Team General Manager Mason St. Hilaire (team co-owner Archie’s son) tells Frontstretch that the team has signed K&N Pro Series East and late model veteran Eddie MacDonald to drive both races at New Hampshire. The 35-year old MacDonald, fresh off a PASS Late Model win at NHMS, made his Cup debut last year at New Hampshire for Go FAS Racing, finishing 35th. In addition, Xfinity Series regulars Joey Gase and Blake Koch will also have races in the No. 32 at some point later this year.