ALL-STAR: Elusive Victory – Bobby LabonteBobby Labonte, TRG Motorsports Chevrolet ImpalaFirst all-star start: 5/20/1995Best finish: 2nd, 1997 and 1998How he made the race: Previous Cup series champion within the last 10 years
Editor’s note: Eighteen drivers are guaranteed to start in the May 22 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, which will be televised live on SPEED, starting at 7 pm Eastern. Following is the third of 18 profiles of those drivers locked into the field.
Bobby Labonte has accomplished a lot in his lengthy NASCAR Cup series career.
His biggest achievements include the 2000 series championship along with victories in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Aside from a Daytona 500 win, the next most notably absent line from Labonte’s resume is perhaps a win in the Sprint All-Star Race.
He hopes that changes with his 16th start in the popular exhibition event on May 22 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“The all-star race, not only does it pay a huge purse but what a way to kick off your summer tour if you can win that race – even though it doesn’t pay points,” said Labonte, who made his first all-star appearance in 1995. “Your confidence level could go to the roof and things could kind of happen for you. Like if you win the Daytona 500 but you don’t win another race - that kind of makes your year. I think the all-star race, it’s not the Daytona 500 but it definitely would rank up there.”
Labonte has enjoyed considerable success at Charlotte, notching two wins, three poles and 17 top-10s in 34 points-paying starts. He ran an all-star best second in 1997 and 1998 with Joe Gibbs Racing and has twice captured the pole for the prestigious nighttime affair.
Labonte admittedly isn’t a huge fan of the race’s ever evolving format, which this year features 100 laps broken into four segments, capped by a 10-lap dash at the end.
“The shorter races probably aren’t as much my forte as one that’s 500 miles, put it that way,” said Labonte, who joined NASCAR’s top series in 1993. “A 10-lap sprint, a 20-lap sprint at the end is OK but I’m probably more situated to be a guy that’s better at 50 laps than 10 laps.”
While Labonte prefers longer races, he believes the unpredictable nature of the all-star race – which pays over $1 million to win and typically produces carnage galore – could give him a shot at an upset victory.
Labonte hasn’t been to victory lane in any kind of race – points-paying or exhibition – since Nov. 16, 2003, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His dry spell is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as he toils in his first full season with a TRG Motorsports organization that is several laps behind NASCAR’s elite teams.
Labonte finished no better than 21st in the first nine races of 2010 and was 31st in points entering the May 1 race at Richmond International Raceway.
With the always-present likelihood of chaos eliminating top contenders, and just a 21-car field in this year’s all-star gathering, Labonte could be a spoiler.
“There’s elements for that, that can happen,” said the 45-year-old Texan. “And it opens up the door for more. That’s not how you want to do it but if that’s how it happens, you’ll take it. So it’s just one of those things that the stars have to line up just right.”
The stars are yet to align for Labonte in the all-star race despite posting seven top-10s in his previous 15 starts. The veteran driver came home 11th out of 21 cars last year while driving the No. 96 Ford for Hall of Fame Racing.Like so many drivers, Labonte considers the feeling surrounding the all-star race to be different from that which surrounds most points-paying events.
“You’re definitely amped up on it more because you know it’s a short race, you know you’ve got a certain amount of time, you know you’re not going to have eight pit stops to get your car right,” Labonte said.So why has the winner of 21 points races over 17-plus Cup seasons never conquered the all-star race?
“Just circumstances have prevented it,” Labonte said.