Former NASCAR Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte added another accomplishment to his Hall of Fame resume on Saturday evening.
Having won in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions during his three-decade career, Labonte finally broke through for his first SMART Modified Tour victory after starting from the pole at Dillon Motor Speedway.
Labonte described racing SMART Modified Tour as an entertaining yet frustrating challenge during a busy year, which is why he felt relieved to put together a complete race against the veterans of the region.
“It was a good night,” Labonte said. “We had a fast race car and everything went our way, so it felt really good to get that win behind us. The speed has been there all year but we haven’t been able to finish the deal until now.”
The parity in the SMART Modified Tour is one of the main factors that attracted Labonte to the series.
With drivers like Bowman Gray Stadium champions Burt Myers and Tim Brown competing on a regular basis, Labonte knew that he and Team 25 would have to put together perfect race day setups each week to contend for victories in the SMART Modified Tour.
Maximizing the efficiency of Team 25’s equipment required Labonte to understand tire management with Modifieds and adapt to a diverse schedule from the abrasive Hickory Motor Speedway to the smoother pavement of South Boston Speedway.
While Labonte was competitive in his first five SMART Modified Tour starts, none of those performances yielded a victory. This made him wonder whether or not committing to the series would be a worthwhile investment until he brought home a checkered flag at Dillon.
“We were fast but we weren’t winning, so I didn’t think this was going to be good,” Labonte said. “I was unsure that we would pull off a victory against competition this strong but we weren’t going to give up. It all came down to figuring everything out while just trying to win.”
A similar scenario played out for Labonte when he competed in the Superstar Racing Experience over the summer.
Tony Stewart, Ernie Francis Jr., Bill Elliott and Helio Castroneves were among the competitors Labonte race against across the six-race SRX schedule that saw the series travel around the country and promote short track racing on a national level.
Unlike the SMART Modified Tour, Labonte was unable to obtain a win in SRX but he admitted that driving those cars was more about the experience as opposed to who was the best driver.
Labonte said the crowds that attended SRX races are evidence of how valuable short tracks are to motorsports fans around the United States and how people like himself, Stewart and others are crucial to their survival while the industry goes through wholescale changes.
“The fans we’ve been able to see and meet at all the tracks we’ve been to has been great,” Labonte said. “Short track racing is the heart of what we’ve done this past year and it’s where I started off. I’ve enjoyed giving back to so many places that have been near and dear to my heart.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 reinforced how much racing meant to Labonte, who considers himself fortunate to still be an active competitor in motorsports at the age of 57.
Labonte currently does not have any major plans lined up for the 2022 season, as his attention is centered on the SMART Modified Tour and how to approach tracks that he has never competed at once in his life.
Missing the fifth race of the season at Caraway Speedway due to SRX commitments put Labonte behind in the point standings but he believes a title is still feasible with the SMART Modified Tour knocking out races in quick succession during the fall.
Labonte knows that he and Team 25 can not make any mistakes during the remaining races but the victory at Dillon has given him the confidence he needs to re-establish himself as a favorite for the first championship in the revived SMART Modified Tour.
“I’d go to Disney World if I won the title,” Labonte said. “You set out goals at the beginning of the year and you want to win as many races as you can. This series is growing and getting more attention drawn towards it, so being able to win a title in my first year would be such a great accomplishment.”
Labonte is proud to be a part of successful inaugural years for both the SMART Modified Tour and SRX, adding that he is confident in the ability of the two divisions to thrive while the motorsports industry recovers from the pandemic and other issues.
Although his immediate racing future after 2021 is unknown, Labonte is determined to keep winning while he still has a passion for auto racing on weekends.