Bobby Labonte is returning to the driver’s seat and hopes to fight for a NASCAR championship, albeit in a different continent.
The 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) champion will run full-time in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, driving the #18 Toyota for RDV Competition with sponsorship from oil company YACCO. The news was released Monday.
“Joining the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series is a great opportunity,” Labonte stated. “At the Brands Hatch race last year, I was definitely impressed by the competitiveness of the series. The testing we did with Frederic Gabillon last fall and putting this together with Franck Violas and the RDV team gives me a great advantage. Having the opportunity to represent YACCO as a sponsor on a global level just adds to the excitement, and I look forward to all the growth and new opportunities this could bring.”
In June 2017, Labonte made his series debut at Brands Hatch, becoming the first American-based champion to race in the Euro Series, in the #1 Ford for Alex Caffi Motorsport. In two races at the Kent circuit, he finished fourteenth and tenth after starting twenty-second in both.
It will not the first time Labonte has driven a #18 car, let alone a #18 Toyota. From 1995 to 2005, he drove the #18 for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series, winning 21 races with the team along with the 2000 title. He also scored wins in three of the Cup Series’ major events: the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1995), the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (2000), and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2005). In 2016, he reunited with JGR to drive the #18 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished twenty-third.
After departing JGR following the 2005 season, he raced for a variety of teams in the Cup Series, including Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing, TRG Motorsports, and JTG Daughery Racing. His most recent Cup start, the 2016 Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, was a thirty-first place run for Go Fas Racing. Following the end of his Cup career, he became an analyst for NBC and Fox, appearing on the latter’s NASCAR RaceDay program.
Labonte is the first driver in NASCAR history to win two of the sport’s three national series championships. Prior to his 2000 Cup title, he won the 1991 Xfinity (then Busch) Series championship in a two-win campaign for family-owned Labonte Motorsports. He is one of twenty-nine drivers who have won at least one race in all three national series, while Labonte is the first to do so at one track in particular: Martinsville Speedway, where he won in 1992 (Busch/Xfinity), 2002 (Cup), and 2005 (Camping World Truck).
“Having a NASCAR champion like Bobby Labonte compete in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series is a huge win for fans and competitors alike,” NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief International Officer Jim Cassidy said. “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.”
RDV Competition, a French-based team, will also field cars for Frederic Gabillon, who has finished second in the championship twice, and Ulysse Delsaux, a 20-year-old driver who finished fourth in the Elite 2 class in 2017.
The 2018 Euro Series season will kick off 14–15 April at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain. Labonte will not the only American driver in the field as current Truck Series regular Jennifer Jo Cobb plans to make her series debut with Racing Total.