Labonte praises Apple Blossom, talks racing career

Apple Blossom Firefighters' Parade Marshal Bobby Labonte waves to the crowd during an appearance at the coronation ceremonies Friday afternoon at Handley High School. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – The Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival has built a history of linking itself to some of the most popular names in the sport of NASCAR, and event officials continued that tradition this year when they named Bobby Labonte the 2017 Firefighters’ Marshal.

Labonte, speaking to the media prior to taking part in the annual Firefighters’ Parade on Friday afternoon, said he heard rave reviews of The Bloom from last year’s firefighers’ marshal, NASCAR commentator Jeff Hammond, prior to his arrival in Winchester and had his own positive take on the 90th anniversary of the festival.

“I love the program. … Of course I was knighted, so that’s my first knighting. I’ve never been knighted before,” Labonte said with a laugh. “But I mean the whole program, I think it really is cool to see the tradition in it. Love that atmosphere.”

Labonte joined the likes of Hammond, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Labonte’s older brother Terry in assuming the role as Apple Blossom firefighters’ marshal in recent years, and he spent time Friday offering some insight into a racing career that included some milestone achievements in the sport.

Labonte was the first driver to win both the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship (2000) and the Busch Series championship (1991), and was the first to complete the NASCAR Triple Threat on the same racetrack by winning races in Martinsville in NASCAR’s top three racing series.

On Friday he spoke about his Winston Cup Series championship season in 2000, during which he beat racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., the runner-up, by 265 points.

“What stands out about that season was the year before I thought we should’ve won, and then 2000 we ended up winning. In ’99 I remember the exact race and lap that I messed up and it cost me enough points to probably lose the championship,” said Labonte, referring to a race in Sonoma, California, during which he tried to pass Joe Nemechek on turn 11 and ended up colliding with a pile of tires on the turn.

“And then in 2000 we kept momentum going and we were just able to be so consistent that it just crushed them, because nobody else could be as consistent as we were. And so throughout the whole year, I mean the best part about the whole year was getting to the end and realizing how much I probably should’ve enjoyed it more. I enjoyed it enough but I mean you kind of realize you should enjoy it more. … And then obviously beating Earnhardt for the championship, for the title … when you beat him you pretty much beat the best.”

Labonte’s contributions to the sport of racing have started venturing off the track and into the television broadcast booth in recent years.

In 2014 he worked as a reporter for NASCAR America on NBCSN, and Labonte is currently an analyst for the daily news program “NASCAR Race Hub” on Fox Sports 1.

Labonte said throughout much of his racing career, he was of the mindset that broadcasting was something he never wanted to get into as an alternate career path, an idea likely informed by his brother’s own experience with the endeavor.

“My brother’s got a great story,” Labonte said. “They wanted him to do it at ESPN, so they flew him up to Bristol, Connecticut, and he did like a thing, and he’s like, ‘that is not for me. I don’t want any part of that.'”

Labonte said that as his racing career began to slow, however, he started thinking more and more about ways he could stay connected to the sport. He has since come to like having the opportunity to provide the television audience with some insight and perspective that he otherwise would’ve never had the chance to offer, he said.

“It kind of makes it more exciting for me. (I’m) actually liking it,” he said. “It took me a while to go, ‘I’m not sure about this. I’m not sure about this.’ But after a while it’s finally getting to the point, and working around great people has been fun. People have been awesome and they make it a lot better for me, and easier for me. I’m not quite comfortable yet but I’m working on it, getting there. It’s fun, I get to watch everything I love but from a different point of view.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com