As a 9-year-old in Israel, Alon Day‘s introduction to auto racing came via video games.
“I used to play a lot of racing video games, simulators,” Day told NBC Sports a few days after he secured his second NASCAR Whelen Euro Series championship.
In the NASCAR games he played, one car stood out to Day.
It wasn’t Jeff Gordon‘s DuPont car, Mark Martin‘s Valvoline car or Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Budweiser car.
“Actually my favorite car was the 18 car, the Interstate Batteries (car) of Bobby Labonte,” Day says.
Seventeen years later, Day got a friendly tap from the past on his rear bumper.
It wasn’t an Interstate Batteries car, but the green-and-black No. 18 Day saw in his rear-view mirror in July at Tours Speedway in France was driven by Labonte.
The 2000 Cup champion is the first former champion to compete full-time in the Euro Series.
“That’s a very nice thing to see when you have a such a big driver come to your championship,” Day says. “You’re expecting (him) to be very unreachable, I would say that. We all were super surprised by the fact that Bobby was such a nice guy, talking to everybody. Giving advice to young drivers, helping them. Not only me, which was great, but some other drivers did a couple of races also in the states and he helped them also. That’s a nice thing to see and to experience. … People want to see Bobby Labonte. People comes to the races to see that. That makes it even bigger.”
In a series made up mostly of road courses, Labonte shined on the .403-mile oval in Tours.
“I think everybody was impressed,” says Day. “On road courses he was in the top 10, but he’s not really fighting for wins. But when we came to ovals suddenly the guy was so quick.”
After Labonte started seventh in the second Tours race, he found himself behind race leader Day on a restart with four laps to go.
Labonte let Day know he was there.
“He really bumped me. He was pushing me hard,” Day recalls.
But Day survived and claimed his first win on an oval. Labonte finished second for his only top five of the season.
“First of all I won in front of Bobby Labonte,” Days says. “That was personally the best feeling in the world.”
The surreal experience wasn’t over. Labonte made sure to talk with Day afterward.
“After that we had a good conversation about the way he drives an oval,” Days says. “He explained to me in super detail how he drove the car and what he actually did to be so fast, that was a good thing for me.”
Three months later, the moment was topped when Day completed his second championship campaign. He did it with a sweep of last weekend’s races at Circuit Zolder in Belgium.
Day “had to bounce back from the grave” to win the title after he was disqualified from a win in May for failing post-race inspection and lost driver points.
Even though he entered the final race with six wins, Day had to finish at least fourth to claim the title. Even a start from the pole didn’t calm his nerves.
“Until the very, very last lap when I crossed the line I wasn’t sure I was going to win the championship,” says Day. “Even during the middle of the season, I (never) thought I was going to win the championship. … Still, I surprised myself.”