Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Cup champion, will kick off his second consecutive season in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in this weekend’s NASCAR GP of Spain at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain.
Labonte, 54, will drive the #70 Mishumotors Chevrolet SS in the ELITE 1 Division for the German team, sharing the car with team owner Mirco Schultis.
The GP is a two-day event, held on Saturday and Sunday. Labonte will be one of 33 drivers competing in the two ELITE 1 Division races.
“The racing is really good and the competition is getting stronger every year in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, so I am excited to get back in the car at the GP of Spain,” Labonte said in a media release. “Last year’s race in Valencia was pretty intense, especially in turn one. We had some great door-to-door battles along the way and it will be great to take what we learned last year and drive there for the second time.”
Labonte competed in 11 of last season’s 12 races, finishing 14th in the points. He had one top five and four top 10s, with a runner-up finish at Tours Speedway in France.
“More and more European fans are discovering the special atmosphere of the Euro NASCAR events and it will be great to meet them again in Valencia this weekend,” Labonte said.
Not long after he competes in the K&N Pro Series East race at Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend, Ruben Garcia Jr. will board a plane for Spain.
Waiting for Garcia will be the first part of a driver exchange program between NASCAR’s European and Mexico racing series.
The defending champion in the NASCAR Peak Mexico Series, Garcia will take part in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series’ season-opening races April 13-14 at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain. On Nov. 30-Dec. 1, the Euro Series champion will return the favor by competing in the Mexico series finale in Mexico City.
All the races will be streamed live on Fanschoice.tv, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series Youtube Channel and Facebook page and on Motorsport.tv.
The races in Valenica will be Garcia’s first in Europe, but Spain will “feel like home” for the him after frequent holiday trips there to visit friends.
“It was great news for me because for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to put something together to go run in the Euro NASCAR because that’s a series that’s been growing a lot and really got my interest,” Garcia said Wednesday during a teleconference. “Even though I’m very, very far from home or the United States and where I’m living now, it’ll still feel like home cause they speak my native language there and it’s a country I enjoy travelling to.”
Garcia’s Euro Series start will come in the ELITE 1 Division driving the No. 1 Alex Caffi Motorsport Toyota Camry. Though Garcia will only have three practices sessions to get used to his car and the 14-turn track, he thinks his history with road courses in the Mexico and K&N Series will help.
But Garcia is aware of some of the more intrinsic differences in series.
“The cars are similar to what we race in Mexico,” Garcia said. “So on that part I don’t think it will be as challenging. … Since they have more of the European style of racing, the FIA style of racing. … It’s different than what we do here in Mexico and the United States. They really don’t have contact. Their battles are strong, but they’re very, very respectful. That’s something I might need to get used to, no contact at all. They’re very good road course racers.”
“I can tell you what got my attention,” Garcia said of the Euro Series. “They’re getting a lot of new cars, they’re getting a lot of new sponsors and that’s always a good sign for a series. If that’s happening it’s because they’re doing something right. As a driver you always want to try new things and get new challenges.
“They go to some really cool places and really cool tracks. … That’s something that really got my attention, they go to some Formula 1 race tracks. Some great facilities, some great road courses that when I was really little I dreamed of racing (at).”
Garcia said he’ll try to tap into the knowledge of three-time Euro Series champion Ander Vilariño and defending champion Alon Day, both drivers he has relationships with.
As a two-time Mexico Series champion, Garcia is excited for the driver swap as an opportunity to show off the series’ talent.
“There’s a great level (of competition) in the Mexico as well as the NASCAR Euro Series,” Garcia said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for both series to show how good they are and how good the NASCAR Mexico drivers can do outside their country. Even though we’re racing against road course specialists, we’ll still`perform really good.”
Villeneuve has made 20 starts across all three of NASCAR’s national series in the United States.
Villeneuve took part in a two-day test at the Autodromo di Franciacorta in Italy last week to get familiar with the Euro series car.
“I had a lot of fun discovering the car because it is really similar to what I was used to in NASCAR in the US. You can really drive it hard and you can work a lot on the car and that is also very nice. I also like the track, it’s interesting and there’s a lot to do for the driver,” Villeneuve told NASCAR’s Home Tracks website. “Returning full-time is what matters the most to me, because I want to be part of a complete project and have a goal for the entire season. I’m really looking forward to the first race of 2019!”
The series’ season begins April 13-14 at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain.
“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.
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.”
Labonte hasn’t competed in a NASCAR race on American soil since 2016, but he’s now competing full-time in the Whelen Euro Series and he’s not doing too bad driving the No. 18 he helped make famous in the Cup Series.
On Sunday, Labonte placed second behind Alon Day in the ELITE 1 Round 8 Final at Tours Speedway in Tours, France.
Labonte was unable to find a way around Day in a four-lap shootout to end the race. His podium finish came after he spun early in the race and a clutch issue forced him out of the ELITE 1 Round 7 race on Saturday.
“It was such a hard race because of the grip level and the degradation of the tires,” Labonte said. “The car changed a lot and the bottom line was always the groove. Alon did a great job holding his line. I got to his bumper but you don’t crash people to win a race. He didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to get him and maybe there was a chance with a few more laps. My team did a great job and today was a good day but first would have been better.”
The only American competing in the series, Labonte is 12th in points with one top five and three top 10s.
The series’ 12-race season is divided into six weekends with races held on back-to-back days.
The season’s last two weekends are Sept. 15-16 (Hockenheim, Germany) and Oct. 20-21 (Zolder, Belgium).