Bobby Labonte had a hard time staying away from NASCAR competition, so much so that’s he’s ready to race for a championship again. The only twist is where.
Labonte, the 2000 champion of what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, announced Monday that he’ll compete full-time in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2018. He’ll partner with RDV Competition, driving a Toyota with No. 18 — the car number he carried in all 21 of his premier series victories.
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“If I didn’t enjoy this, I wouldn’t do this,” Labonte told NASCAR.com. “It’ll be fun to get back out on the race track with other cars, just like I did last year.”
The 53-year-old driver got a taste of the European style of stock-car racing last season, finishing 14th and 10th in two rounds at Brands Hatch last May. This year, Labonte is back for more, opening the season with the French-based RDV team this weekend in Valencia, Spain.
The Whelen Euro Series schedule will take Labonte to five more tracks in five different countries this season, with each circuit hosting two rounds in a given weekend. During his Monster Energy Series career, Labonte typically raced at two road courses per year. This season will be largely oval-free, with later trips to road-racing facilities in Italy (May 19-20), England (June 9-10), Germany (Sept. 15-16) and Belgium (Oct. 20-21) — with the oval at Tours, France (June 30-July 1) sandwiched in.
“That’s all those guys do over there,” Labonte said with a laugh. “So you can only imagine that when you do it twice a year, right straight away you’re not going to be as good as they are, but I hope that with the style of race car that they’re not used to, that I’m used to. I’m going to go somewhere new five out of six times. I’ve never been there before for five out of six races, so it’ll be a challenge for me, but I also know that we’ll get up to speed pretty quick.
“Hopefully, the two races I ran a year for many years will pay off somewhat down the road. I think it will. It’ll be a challenge, but it’ll be fun.”
Labonte will be teammates with veteran Frederic Gabillon, twice a series runner-up, and young talent Ulysse Delsaux. Sponsorship will come from French oil company Yacco. Labonte drove car No. 1 for Alex Caffi Motorsport at Brands Hatch last season, becoming the first American NASCAR champion to compete in the Whelen Euro Series.
“Having a NASCAR champion like Bobby Labonte compete in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series is a huge win for fans and competitors alike,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief International Officer. “Labonte’s full-time involvement gives American fans an even stronger connection to the series, while offering our European fans a close look at one of NASCAR’s greats.”
Bobby Labonte followed his family’s path to racing, eventually joining his older brother, Terry, in NASCAR’s big leagues. Both became champions, with Terry Labonte winning the season-long crown in 1984 and 1996 on his way to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Bobby Labonte claimed the championship in what’s now called the NASCAR Xfinity Series for his family-owned team in 1991. He moved up to NASCAR’s top division, where he competed for more than two decades before making his last start in 2016. Labonte has since made the transition to broadcasting, taking a more prominent role this year as a studio analyst for FOX Sports.
“I’m having a lot of fun with it and want to do more of that,” Labonte said. “I’m excited that they’re allowing me to go racing a little bit, but it also helps when I talk about racing, you’re a little bit more in tune.”
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