Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, announced Monday that he’ll compete in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series this season.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of fun involved,” Labonte said Monday. “At the same time, it’s competition and going out there and racing against guys with so many different backgrounds. It’s exciting to us to be able to do all of it. It’s obviously being a part of wanting to see NASCAR grow.”
“It is a huge milestone for the Whelen Euro Series to welcome an American champion of Bobby’s caliber to contend for the title,” said Jerome Galpin, NASCAR Whelen Euro Series President and CEO. “This is another sign of the international appeal the series has delivered. We are proud to have a strong international lineup of 30 drivers and teams.”
Labonte competed last June in two series races at Brands Hatch, England. He called the experience “amazing.” Labonte finished 14th in his first race and 10th in the second race in a 22-car field.
“I had never been there before, the whole format is different than what you would find in the Cup Series or Xfinity or Truck Series, it’s a different environment and I enjoyed it,” Labonte said.
Labonte said he worked to return to that series again this year and things fell in place for him to run the entire season.
Labonte joins forces with two-time championship runner-up Frederic Gabillon and Ulysse Delsaux for the French RDV Competition team.
The 12-race season is divided into six weekends. Races are on back-to-back days. The season begins this weekend in Valencia, Spain.
1. Over the sport’s history, what two drivers would you have liked to have seen race head-to-head?
Steve Letarte: I think the easy answer is you take all the seven-time champs and line them up. The other two that are a little off the wall that I’d love to see race each other is Kyle Busch and Cale Yarborough. I think they are both hard-nosed, no-nonsense, win-at-all-cost competitors, and I think that would have been a dang good race to watch. I think the big answer that the whole world would like to see but never will, of course, you want to line up all three seven-time champions. You want to take the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Richard Petty to go against the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Dale Earnhardt Sr. to go against the mid-2000’s Jimmie Johnson. That right there would be another great show.
Jeff Burton: Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty. I believe their driving styles are very similar. I would love to see two of the best in our sports’ history in a battle.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: My father and grandfather at a small short track. I’d never seen Ralph race obviously. So seeing him compete would be epic. I’ve always heard what an incredible short track racer Ralph was. I’d love to see these two duke it out on a bullring in equal cars.
Kyle Petty: I was blessed to grow up in this sport. More blessed to have watched some of the greatest drivers in our sport race each other. Pearson, Petty, Allisons, Baker, Yarborough and Waltrip as I was growing up. Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Jarrett, Kulwicki, Wallace, Martin, Rudd, Richmond, Gant, Labonte as I started my career. Gordon, Burtons, Bobby Labonte, Stewart, Johnson, Harvick, Busch and others as my career was ending. To me three periods in time. Three periods in our sport. I heard stories from my grandfather about the early years (50s) and my father’s stories from the early 60s. I’ve come to believe you can’t take a driver from one era and insert him in another. Great drivers are great drivers no matter when, what or where they drove. I’ve been blessed to see a lot of the GREATEST go head-to-head at some point in my life. So I guess my answer should be … Been there, Done that.
Nate Ryan: Tim Richmond and Curtis Turner. The stories are legend and well told about who they were as personalities, but the display of their on-track talents unfortunately was limited because of careers cut short by death or labor disputes. It would be wonderful to see what made both of them so legendary behind the wheel.
Dustin Long:Tony Stewart vs. Bobby Allison. This would be an epic matchup of two talented racers who could compete in multiple vehicles, wouldn’t give an inch and also were known have a temper in and out of the car. Can you imagine these two racing for the win at a short track in the final laps?
Daniel McFadin: All of my memories of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. competing against each other are from the late 90s when Earnhardt was winning once or twice a year or not at all. I would love to see the Earnhardt from 1987 (11 wins) go head-to-head with the Gordon from 1998 (modern record of 13 wins) in an anything goes match race at Bristol.
Parker Kligerman: Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt. I could only imagine what kind of fireworks this would have produced. I’m sure there would be great mutual respect but both had a disdain for second place.
2. What is one track you wish you could have gone to in person to have seen a NASCAR race (or go to one last time)?
Steve Letarte: The place that I have never been that I would have loved to have seen once in my day is Riverside. I’ve seen so many stories. While we go to road courses now, Riverside seems to have this aura about it. There are so many stories that come from it. The track that I could go back to one last time and race, without a doubt, is Martinsville. It’s my favorite race track.
Jeff Burton: I would like for our sport’s biggest series to go to one of the historic NASCAR short tracks. I believe a once-a-year event would bring some new excitement and enthusiasm that all forms of auto racing would benefit from.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Asphalt Bristol was incredible. Nothing compared to it. Even concrete Bristol at its peak of popularity didn’t quite deliver like asphalt Bristol did. That track was unruly and it seemed to bring out the worst in drivers. You couldn’t keep up with the many feuds going on in one single night of racing.
Kyle Petty: Lakewood Speedway, Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve heard about that place my whole life, from my father and grandfather. They spoke of it as if it was the greatest track they ever went to (until they built Daytona). Raymond Parks, Bill France, Red Byron so much of NASCAR’s early history came out of the Atlanta area. I would have liked to have seen a glimpse of that.
Nate Ryan: Ontario Motor Speedway (with nearby Riverside International Raceway a close second). Before California Speedway opened, I became very familiar with Ontario in researching its history — but all that I’ve seen of the track is a few dirt berms left on the property after it was razed. There were so many positive reviews (and some memorable races despite only a 10-year run) of the 2.5-mile track that was intended to be a replica of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’d love to have explored Brickyard West in its prime.
Dustin Long: I’ve heard so many stories about North Wilkesboro and what the fans were like there, throwing chicken bones at anybody that dared challenge or damage hometown hero Junior Johnson’s car. Would have enjoyed seeing that once.
Daniel McFadin: I would have liked to have seen a race at Darlington before they swapped the front and backstretch. The overhang on the frontstretch grandstand gave it an iconic look and it would have been cool to sit there for a race back in the day.
Parker Kligerman: Old Bristol. The energy must have been insane, and the train of cars was always a spectacle to me. I’ve always thought, it must have been a huge frustration for the drivers but an awesome show to see in person.
3. What’s one NASCAR race you would have liked to have seen in person?
Steve Letarte: I’ve heard the firsthand story from Tony Gibson so many times, I wish I could have been in Atlanta (1992). So much happened that day. It was the King’s last, Jeff Gordon’s first, Alan Kulwicki’s championship. The King has told me the story when I’ve been up at the Petty Museum and seen the wrecked race car. Jeff Gordon has explained what that day was like being a rookie. Tony Gibson was on Kulwicki’s crew. There are so many famous races, but that’s the one that I would think I would have loved to have seen that battle play out.
Jeff Burton: Hooters 500 in 1992. All of the events of that day were amazing. The battle for the championship, the King running his last race, and Jeff Gordon running his first race was one of the sports biggest days.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 1979 Daytona 500 would be an easy pick. But I’d also like to have seen my dad’s Daytona 500 win and visited him in Victory Lane that day. I was home injured from the Busch race the previous day. Either one of those races rank as the most important in our sports history, so seeing either would have to bring on some amazing emotions.
Kyle Petty: Any race on the old Daytona Beach Course. Period! Where Men were Men and everyone else just a spectator.
Nate Ryan: The 1979 Daytona 500, to judge whether the atmosphere before, during and shortly after the race foretold that it would be remembered as such a watershed event.
Dustin Long: The 1972 Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison traded the lead 10 times in the last 50 laps before Petty won with a last-lap maneuver. The Associated Press report on the race stated that the cars of Petty and Allison, “both immaculately clean and polished at the start … came out of the duel battered and broken, less than a car length apart at the finish.’’
Daniel McFadin: The 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. To be in the crowd for that race and to experience all the pent-up emotions that were released when Dale Jr. won would just be incredible.
Parker Kligerman: 2003 Darlington; that must have been insane to witness in person.
Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future
Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.
Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them.
There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change.
Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.
“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’
One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.
Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.
That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.
If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.
For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.
It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.
A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.
Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.
One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.
While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?
There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.
2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.
The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.
“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’
Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.
At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.
At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.
Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.
“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’
3. Which three-peat is better?
Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.
Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.
Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.
Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.
Which streak is more impressive?
4. Fast start
Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.
After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.
5. March Madness
With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.
In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.
Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.
A bit overlooked from last weekend’s race at ISM Raceway was that both Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman moved up a spot for most consecutive Cup starts.
Both started their 580th consecutive Cup race last weekend. That moved them ahead of Ken Schrader (579 career starts) into ninth on the all-time list. Kevin Harvick has 572 consecutive starts. He’s set to pass Schrader at Kansas in May.
Next for Johnson and Newman is Mark Martin, who made 621 career Cup starts.
Jeff Gordon is the record holder with 797 consecutive starts. At this point, both Johnson, who is 42 years old, and Newman, who is 40, would need six years to reach Gordon’s mark.
To put the streak Johnson and Newman have compiled into perspective, rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. would each need to not miss a race for 16 years to match them (provided there continues to be 36 points races a year). Both Byron and Wallace will need 22 seasons to match Gordon’s mark.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon headlines the list of nominees for the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class, which was announced Tuesday on NASCAR America.
Gordon, who ranks third on the Cup all-time wins list with 93 and helped broaden the sport’s appeal, is in his first year of eligibility.
Should he be among the five selected for the 2019 Hall of Fame Class, he would follow team owner Rick Hendrick (2017 class) and crew chief Ray Evernham (2018 class).
There are 20 nominees for the class. Fifteen are holdovers from last year. Gordon is among the five new names to the list. Voting is expected to take place in May with the class inducted in January 2019.
Joining Gordon, 46, as first-time nominees are: Harry Gant, John Holman, Ralph Moody and Kirk Shelmerdine.
Gant, 78, competed in NASCAR from 1973-94, winning 18 races and 17 poles. He won four consecutive races in September 1991. He remains the oldest Cup winner. He was 52 years, 7 months, 6 days when he won at Michigan in August 1992. He’s also the oldest pole winner in series history. He was 54 years, 7 months and 17 days when he won the pole at Bristol in August 1994.
Shelmerdine, who turns 60 on Thursday, won four championships as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt in 1986-87 and 1990-91.
Holman and Moody formed one of the sport’s most famous teams. Between 1957-73, Moody and Holman built cars that earned 83 poles and won 96 times. They won the 1968 and ’69 titles with David Pearson. Holman died in 1975. Moody died in 2004.
The other 15 nominees from last year are:
Davey Allison … 19-time Cup winner who won the 1992 Daytona 500. He was the 1987 Rookie of the Year. He died in a helicopter crash in 1993 at Talladega.
Buddy Baker … 19-time Cup winner who won the 1980 Daytona 500. He was the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph barrier, doing so in 1970.
Red Farmer … Records are incomplete but the 1956 modified and 1969-71 Late Model Sportsman champ is believed to have won well more than 700 races. Continued racing beyond 80 years old.
Ray Fox … Renowned engine builder, car owner and race official. He built the Chevrolet that Junior Johnson won the 1960 Daytona 500 driving. Fox won the 1964 Southern 500 as a car owner with Johnson as his driver.
Harry Hyde … Crew chief for Bobby Isaac when Isaac won the 1970 series title. Guided Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine, Neil Bonnett and Dave Marcis each to their first career series win.
Alan Kulwicki … 1992 series champion who overcame a 278-point deficit in the final six races to win title by 10 points, at the time the closet margin in series history. He was the 1986 Rookie of the Year. He was killed in a plane crash in 1993.
Bobby Labonte … 2000 series champion who won 21 Cup races. He was the first driver to win an Xfinity title and a Cup championship in a career.
Hershel McGriff … Made his NASCAR debut at age 22 in the 1950 Southern 500 and ran his final NASCAR race at age 84 in 2012. Was selected as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
Roger Penske … Team owner whose organization has won 107 Cup races and one series title. Has been a car owner in auto racing for more than 50 years.
Larry Phillips … Weekly short track series driver believed to have more than 1,000 career wins. During an 11-year span, he won 220 of 289 NASCAR-sanctioned starts on short tracks.
Jack Roush … Team owner whose organization has won 137 Cup races and two series titles (Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004). Team has won more than 300 races across NASCAR’s three national series.
Ricky Rudd … Won 23 Cup races, including 1997 Brickyard 400. He is known most as NASCAR’s Ironman, once holding the record for consecutive starts at 788. He ranks second in all-time Cup starts with 906.
Mike Stefanik … Nine-time NASCAR champion with his titles coming in the Whelen Modified Tour and the K&N Pro Series East.
Waddell Wilson … Famed engine builder and crew chief. He supplied the power for David Pearson’s championships in 1968 and ’69 and Benny Parsons’ 1973 title. Wilson’s engines won 109 races. He won 22 races as a crew chief, including three Daytona 500 victories.
Nominees for the Landmark Award are Alvin Hawkins Sr., Barney Hall, Janet Guthrie, Jim Hunter and Ralph Seagraves.
Hawkins established Bowman Gray Stadium with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
Hall was a broadcaster for 54 years from 1960-2014.
Guthrie was the first woman to race in a Cup superspeedway event.
Hunter was a journalist, track promoter and longtime NASCAR executive.
Seagraves started RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company’s sponsorship of NASCAR.