Bobby Labonte the Mentor Not Ready to Hang it up Quite Yet

Bobby Labonte has done just about everything there is to do in NASCAR. Sprint Cup Series champion. XFINITY Series champion. He’s won at a variety of the larger races, such as the Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. There is really nothing left for him to prove, or is there?

As Labonte takes part in his 25th year in the Cup Series, he is doing so for the second consecutive season with Go FAS Racing in a limited role. Just like last year he is strictly running the four restrictor plate races, where his best finish last season was 23rd at Talladega in October.

Go FAS Racing is in a transition period. Jeffrey Earnhardt will be piloting the No. 32 Ford for the majority of the races that Labonte is not behind the wheel. Last season the 26-year-old made his Sprint Cup debut at Richmond finishing 40th.

Labonte is serving the role as mentor to Earnhardt, something that he has done a lot of to younger drivers in recent years.

“He has to have a desire to do it first of all,” Labonte, the 2000 Cup Series champion, told Speedway Digest at Daytona. “I can’t drive anything for him. I can’t tell him how to drive the car. He can lean on me if he has those questions that anybody would have if they are starting their first year.”

Stability and seniority might be what the young team needs. After being formed by long-time crew chief Frank Stoddard, Archie St. Hilaire purchased a minority interest in the team in 2014 to form Go FAS Racing, the team that it is today. However, he is now the majority owner.

Since the 2014 Daytona 500, the team has had 14 different drivers in the No. 32 car. While 2014 was the most successful season for the organization, competing in all 36 events and finishing the season with an average finish of 33.1, 2015 left the organization scratching its head. It qualified for 30 races last year, with Mike Bliss and Josh Wise piloting the car for nearly half the season.

During the off-season, Can-Am hopped on board to fulfill the majority of the season while Earnhardt is in the car, along with sponsoring Labonte in the Great American Race.

 “It’s important,” Labonte said of what his seniority means to the team. “It’s something as they want to grow and if they want to grow, there are things that I can probably do and there are things that they have to obviously do, too. If I can speak the right words and hopefully give them the right few items here and there I think it would be great.”

Though the 52-year-old Labonte doesn’t miss racing every week due to the long grind that is the NASCAR season, he wants to see the team he races for part-time succeed without him in the car. His main focus while being a part of this young team is to help them elevate the performance.

Labonte has been through a ton in the latter part of his career, which could be one of the main reasons why he doesn’t want to call it quits just yet.

While he isn’t at the racetrack on a weekly basis, he can be seen as a part-time analyst for NBC. This is something he did a handful of times last year and expects to early on in 2016.

The 2000 Cup Series champion also participated in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 18 ride. The main reasoning for competing in that race was to help the organization kickoff its 25-year anniversary campaign.

“Obviously there was a lot of things, but Kyle getting hurt last year, not wanting to do it this year, NOS coming on board, [the] 25th anniversary [for Joe Gibbs Racing],” Labonte said.

Labonte also admitted that the two sides are talking about the possibility of pairing up for one more event later in the season.

The only thing that is missing from Labonte’s repertoire is a Camping World Truck Series championship. He is one of four drivers to win a Sprint Cup and XFINITY title. As he gets older, he realizes the magnitude that would have on his career.

“I think that would be fun, it would be really good,” Labonte said. “The opportunity is not really there, so we’ll see what happens. That would be great. I think that would be something I would like to do.”

As elite drivers get older, they often just ride into the sunset and don’t race back down the rankings in which they were brought up. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and after this year, Tony Stewart would have all retired racing in the top series.

 Labonte, on the other hand, is doing a mixture. He is looking for opportunities. The deal with JGR was brought up and he jumped on it, knowing that he would be in a competitive ride. The race didn’t go as planned after getting caught up in an early crash, but he did qualify third and was quick in practice all week long.  

He still has the drive to get it done, it’s just an opportunity hasn’t arose that is appealing.

If Labonte were to ever compete in a full season and win a Truck Series championship, more than likely, he would be an automatic Hall of Famer, something that his brother, Terry Labonte is.

The elder of the Labonte brothers was inducted into the most recent Hall of Fame class, with his brother by his side. If ever inducted, the Labonte’s would become the first brothers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

 “I think it’s great that we were able to do that,” Labonte said. “It’s a dream come true to be able to do something with your brother and be so successful at it.”

Even if Labonte were to never compete in another NASCAR sanctioned event, his numbers are appealing. 21 Cup victories, 115 top fives and 203 top-10 finishes in 726 career starts.

What a whirlwind career the Texan has had.

Dustin Albino