NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Bobby Labonte Putting Years of iRacing Experience to Use in Fun, Non-Weird Return to Joe Gibbs

After four years of retirement from the NASCAR Cup Series, Bobby Labonte is back.

Well, kind of.

Since the NASCAR season was suspended due to COVID-19, Labonte has been competing in the Pro Invitational Series on iRacing.

“Well, my first thought was, whenever racing Atlanta [Motor Speedway] got shut down for the time being — to me, I had already kind of gotten regrouped on the iRacing thing,” Labonte tells Frontstretch. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll kind of do this for a little bit.’

“Well, obviously, we’re all stuck at home. So it’s like, what else are we going to do?”

Through the four Pro Invitational races so far, Labonte has finishes of 18th, 13th, 13th and 14th — not bad considering each race has had at least 30 participants. At 55 years old, Labonte is the oldest competitor in the field. He’s also the only driver competing that is already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Sim racing wasn’t really a thing when Labonte, the 1991 Xfinity Series champion, was coming up through the ranks, so most would probably assume that he has limited experience with it. However, that could not be further from the truth. Labonte has been a member of iRacing since 2008.

“I have kind of a deep background in sim racing and simulation work,” Labonte says. “So I mean, obviously, if it was a cooking show, I probably wouldn’t do it. But it was iRacing, so I thought, ‘Oh, well, I might as well do it.’

“And I’ve been a member of iRacing since 2008, so I’ve had experience at the iRacing game. In real racing, I was a part of simulation work and simulator work for many years. I can’t race, I can’t drive something, like everybody else. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

These days, many drivers use iRacing and simulators for development and familiarizing themselves with racetracks. But those reasons weren’t why Labonte started sim racing at first.

“Things kind of evolve. Everything evolves,” Labonte says. “So I think back then, if I had the time or the notion — if I were to do it over again, then I probably would’ve taken it a little more serious. I was still playing it as a game. My kid had one. But at the same time, it has evolved, everything has, into what is huge now.”

But as those 12 years have passed, the realism of sim racing has improved, leading to it becoming an essential tool for drivers and teams. Labonte even used it for such purposes while he was competing in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series from 2017-19.

“So the graphics and the physics of it, good then, but better now of course,” Labonte says. “And I think with the young guys today, with respect to, I can still go out there and have fun with it, but you can do some things with it that are — if I had to go to a track I had never been to before, and I’ve done this in the past couple years. If I went to Europe, I’d say, ‘Hm, I need to get on the track that I’ve never been to before and run some laps.

“So you would do it just to familiarize yourself with [a new track]. It’s more helpful today than it was in the past.”

This past week in the virtual race at Richmond Raceway, Labonte put his vast experience on full display. NASCAR, FOX and iRacing trimmed the field size of the Pro Invitational to 26 guaranteed spots and four cars transferring from a last- chance-qualifier race. Labonte wasn’t one of the drivers locked into the race, but that wasn’t a problem for the 2000 Cup champion. He not only advanced to the feature, but he also won the LCQ race.

But what has stuck out to fans more so than Labonte’s somewhat hidden sim racing talents is his return to former team Joe Gibbs Racing, the team with whom he won his Cup championship and all 21 of his Cup victories. Labonte has been piloting the virtual No. 19 Toyota driven by Martin Truex Jr. in the Cup Series.

Truex’s longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex is an ovarian cancer survivor, making her immune system more vulnerable to COVID-19. So the two of them have retreated to isolation in Florida until the quarantine period is over. There, Truex is unable to get to an iRacing rig, so he needed a substitute for the Pro Invitational races.

“Gibbs called and said, ‘Hey, Martin and Sherry, they’re a bit stuck right now. They can’t get to a rig with Sherry’s — they can’t be around people with her immune system,'” Labonte says. “So they asked me, ‘Would you do it?’ because I would say most everybody down there knows that I’ve been an iRacing guy or simulator guy for years. So it’s not like they said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this? I know you’ve never done it before,’ because I’ve done it before.

“So it was easy for me to reactivate my account. I think it’s probably fun for those guys, for Gibbs to have somebody in the fold that, obviously can’t race like I used to, but know that I was active in sim programming back when I drove for them.”

With the exception of a lone Xfinity start in 2016, this is the first time Labonte has been with JGR since he left to drive the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises at the end of the 2005 season. But that departure for Labonte wasn’t personal. He more so wanted to see if the grass was greener on the other side.

“Well, there’s probably more than one thing,” Labonte says. “It’s several things. For me, my driving style, the way the cars were changing, some things were different. Jimmy [Makar] was more of a leader of the whole organization. We made a crew chief or two change, just trying to find the right gel sometimes.”

Makar had been the crew chief for the No. 18 since JGR’s inception. But after the 2002 season, he took on a bigger role with the team. Labonte then went through three different crew chiefs in his final three years with the organization.

“We won a couple races there in ’03 and then didn’t win anything the next year. Sometimes, you kind of say, ‘Well, I guess if it’s different on the other side.’ Maybe you could find more success there. Some guys do, some guys don’t. You don’t know.

“You could always say if you could do it over again, you’d do it differently. But at the same time, you’re just kind of like, ‘I’m not sure.’ I mean, trying to get back to winning ways was harder for me than I thought it would be. You try to find the right chemistry again. Your era, your time that you had that at the right time was the right time. It just seemed like it was like, ‘Ah, how can we get back to winning ways?’”

Despite ending a legendary run on somewhat of a sour note performance-wise, Labonte didn’t hesitate to return to the team to do some iRacing.

“It’s not weird to me,” Labonte says. “It’s not, it really isn’t. I’m still in the sport, so you still know almost everybody. You communicate more with some, less with others. But to me, it didn’t feel weird.

“Well, when I wake up in the morning, it feels like it’s been 15 years. By the time the day goes, it doesn’t feel that bad. When you get older, you feel a little bit more tired at first. You don’t feel quite as good until later.”

With rumors that NASCAR could go back real-life racing as early as mid-May, it brings into question whether Truex will return to race, as the coronavirus will very likely still be a threat at that time. Should Truex elect to stay quarantined with Pollex and Gibbs needs a driver for the actual No. 19 car, don’t expect Labonte to fill in.

“I think that ship has sailed,” Labonte says. “If all goes right and we get back racing again, I’m probably gonna do some modifieds at Bowman-Gray [Stadium] again. But to go and do that, I actually did a test in a simulator for NASCAR this year for the N-Gen car. Going to a racetrack by myself, something like that is one thing, but if I had to go and compete and all that stuff, my gosh, I mean that ship’s sailed on that level.”

Labonte also ruled out a return to the Euro Series, which he last competed in April 2019. But Labonte was also quick to note, never say never.

“No, not right now,” Labonte says. “I mean, again, Father Time is not my best friend. I talked to them [people from the Euro Series] this morning … but more about iRacing stuff they were asking about going over. Again, I’m not going to say no on anything. You don’t ever know, but at the same time, you pretty much know.

“If somebody asked you — you don’t want to say never to you, and then somebody asks you and you’re like, ‘Damn, I already said never.’”

But even if Labonte’s days as an elite driver are behind him, JGR and the Pro Invitational Series still got a driver of his caliber and reputation for a steal — he’s not getting paid to compete in these races.

“I don’t know on everybody else, I’m having fun,” Labonte says. “I’m on the fun roll right now. But I don’t know about everybody, I couldn’t tell you what anybody else is doing.

“For me, again, I’ve had some simulator rigs. My wife encouraged me to do this, so I’m doing it. I’m doing it for I miss NASCAR racing on Sunday, talking about it on TV and talking about it during the week. So I want the smell of gas and oil and the sound of cars more than anybody else, but this is gonna fit the bill until then.”

And fun is precisely what Labonte is having in this series. No better example of it was on display than when he and Clint Bowyer were beating, banging and wrecking each other just outside of the top 10 in a heat race at the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I’m gonna wreck the old man,” Bowyer said just moments before he and Labonte tangled and spun.

But Labonte wasn’t mad about it — he couldn’t stop laughing.

“I think it’s somewhat serious, but fun,” Labonte says. “So I texted him [Bowyer] after that, and he texted me back, and I mean, we’re just laughing about it. If that were real life, Bowyer would say the same thing. You know, it’s almost like the same thing. So I think we’re all serious about it to a point, but it’s still a little fun.

“I mean, everybody’s just trying to get through this situation the best they can, but there is some seriousness about it, but of course, Clint is Clint. You know what I mean. But other people don’t talk like that, some people don’t talk much. Bowyer is Bowyer. Love him to death, but he’s just Bowyer. But no, he texted me the next morning, and we had a laugh about it. You can’t take it too seriously, I don’t think.”

Labonte is a big fan of the series and credits it for successfully filling the void left with NASCAR and other sports being absent. But if there was one thing iRacing could do to improve the competition of the virtual races, Labonte says it would be to randomize the weather. That way, the drivers who have more free time to practice wouldn’t have quite as big of an advantage.

“If they could throw a curveball in, because everybody’s got different things,” Labonte says. “They’re sitting at home all day, practicing all day or they’re not practicing all day. Some people got kids, some people got this, they still have to do that. So some time, if they [iRacing] said, ‘OK, we’re going to race Richmond next weekend, but when you get to Richmond on Sunday or Saturday night, all of a sudden the weather is different than what you practiced in all day, so the car is different.’

“They do it, but sometimes it could be a little bit more.”

Labonte says that the iRacing craze will continue once NASCAR comes back, but it just won’t be as big.

“I think if they went back racing tomorrow, I think they’d still do this,” Labonte says. “I mean, this is not going away, it’s just that this would not be Sundays.”

But until it does come back, Labonte will keep busy by racing in the Pro Invitational Series, as well performing his role as a FOX Sports analyst any way he can, managing his and his wife Kristin’s marketing company, Breaking Limits, LLC, and enjoying being at home.

But for a guy who’s spent a large portion of his life on the road, that isn’t enough.

“We stay busy all the time,” Labonte saud. “She [Kristin] stays busy a lot more than I do. For us, we’ve got 16 acres of land, so we’re just kind of roaming around. I shouldn’t say busy not doing much, but we’ll ride our bikes, we’ll exercise, we’ll clean the house, we’ll do this and that. We’ve got little projects here and there.

“But I’ve come to realize that I like my travel. I like my busy-ness life over not being quite as busy as I want to be.”

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About Michael Massie

Michael Massie
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.