The SMART Modified Tour season opener at Caraway Speedway went according to plan for 2000 NASCAR Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte for the first 98 laps in Sunday’s 99-lap feature.
By the time the checkered flag was displayed, Labonte’s No. 25 Cook Out Modified had to be towed back to the pit lane after he limped across the line in ninth position following a collision with the pit entrance wall while battling Burt Myers for second.
“We got racy there at the end,” a frustrated Labonte said after the race. “When you’re coming to the checkered flag, those things tend to happen, and we got the tail end of it. All in all, our car was good, so we’ll fix it and go to the next one.”
Labonte started the afternoon by posting the third fastest time in qualifying out of 25 cars, but he ended up starting the feature from the pole after an invert forced the original polesitter in Matt Hirschman to line up seventh on the grid.
Labonte only led the first four laps before being passed by Jason Myers, but he maintained his track position inside the Top 5 by the time the caution was displayed for the Lap 30 stage break.
As more cautions fell during the middle portion of the event, a variety of different pit strategies began to take place as Labonte followed the race leader in Hirschman. The two eventually came in for fresh tires of their own when a caution came out with 30 laps to go.
Labonte was able to get through the slower traffic better than Hirschman, but his focus transitioned over towards salvaging a Top 5 once Hirschman passed him on the final restart of the day.
“[Hirschman] had the best car,” Labonte said. “I think I could have been second at the right time, but of course it didn’t work out. That’s just the way it is.”
Hirschman relentlessly worked over Myers before he was finally able to get him loose out of Turn 2 on the white flag. Contact between the two caused Myers to nearly lose control in Turns 3 and 4.
Not wanting to damage his car, Labonte drove to the bottom of the track to avoid Myers and move into second, but his left-front suspension clipped the inside retaining wall, resulting in Labonte registering a ninth-place finish with a wounded car.
While Labonte still managed to record a Top 10 despite the damage, he is not concerned about accumulating points in the 2021 SMART Modified Tour season and is determined to win as many races as possible for Team 25.
“I have to miss a race, so the points don’t really matter,” Labonte said. “If we win six of these races, then it doesn’t matter either, so we’re going to do the best we can. I felt good about the car, but now we have to fix it and go back.”
Labonte will look to visit victory lane for the first time in the SMART Modified Tour on March 20 when the series travels to Florence Motor Speedway, where Labonte recorded a fourth place finish in his debut appearance back on Nov. 21, 2020.
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