Since SRX's debut, Bobby Labonte has produced the type of racing that once earned him a NASCAR Cup Series Championship. The stock car Hall of Famer was known for racing smart, and his seven top-5 finishes in SRX Main Events are a series record.
There's something to be said for keeping your nose clean in a series marked by aggression and hard competition. Labonte has finally taken a big step these past two weeks, winning a Heat race at Stafford Motor Speedway before commanding the Main Event at the Nashville Fairgrounds.
It's the most success he's experienced in SRX, propelling him into the point lead with just two races left to go in 2022. How did he move from weekly contender to dominant winner against the most talented field in SRX history? His mastery of Nashville leads off five takeaways from Week 4 of this six-week All-Star Series on CBS.
Bobby Labonte figures it out
Labonte's Nashville strategy was to watch and learn from a surprising source: Josef Newgarden. As the IndyCar star, turning his first SRX laps, jumped out and won the first heat, Labonte stood back and watched his line while finishing a strong third.
That led to making the right adjustments on a night passing proved difficult. Gaining seven spots in Heat 2 earned him the pole for the Main Event, track position Labonte refused to relinquish. Time and again, he had outstanding restarts, becoming the first SRX driver this season to lead every lap during the Main Event.
That didn't make Labonte any less nervous down the stretch.
"I just thought I wasn't going to win… I thought, I think I'm going to puke with about 10 to go," he said, "Thinking no more cautions… It's just so hard, it's not easy [to win in SRX]. Maybe I made it look a little easy tonight, but it wasn't easy."
"I just thought I wasn't gonna win. This is so intimidating with these drivers. I''m telling you, I get nervous. [Like] I'm gonna puke with like 10 to go."— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) July 10, 2022
-Bobby Labonte pic.twitter.com/Ds4ulgZ69h
Labonte needs to keep confidence high as the two remaining tracks are his biggest challenge. After struggling on dirt last season, running no better than fifth, he'll need more to emerge the series champion.
IndyCar stars shine once again
After a few races with NASCAR at the forefront, IndyCar stars shined in Music City. Three drivers wound up inside the top 5 in the Main Event while both Marco Andretti and Paul Tracy ran fifth or better in all three races.
For Marco, it was a "better back end" that doomed him against Labonte. But it was still a great night for the former IndyCar star, a second straight runner-up finish in the Main Event that's left him Labonte's main contender for the title. It's also given hope that his career will regenerate elsewhere when SRX is over: NASCAR.
"I'm talking to some people about Xfinity," he said Saturday night. "If I can hang with these guys, maybe I can hang in Xfinity. It would be fun."
For Tracy, it's by far his longest streak of success after spending 2021 causing wrecks (his 15 incidents led SRX). All of a sudden, it's clicked for the 53-year-old whose five straight top-5 finishes reminded everyone how talented he is when keeping things clean.
Newgarden wins the battle, Kenseth wins the war
Hometown boy Newgarden had a sizzling debut, winning Heat 1 from the pole. It seemed like he had a rhythm going at this racetrack, hustling through the field and looking like a top-3 contender in the main event.
"If you ever think that drivers aren't athletes, you're wrong."— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) July 10, 2022
174 beats per minute and 800 calories burned already for Josef Newgarden. pic.twitter.com/nLTtEadLrT
But halfway through the main, Newgarden lost it, slamming the wall and damaging his car before crashing again with Tony Kanaan. Fighting back to seventh, he had a blast but understood it could have ended much better.
"It was a lot of fun," Newgarden said. "I would love to come back. For me, it felt like a big test session... I was getting roughed up in the beginning of the final, just these guys were just shoving me around, so I've just got to learn the driving style and etiquette."
As Newgarden faded, Matt Kenseth came to the forefront, gaining a SRX-high eight spots during the Main Event. With laps winding down, Labonte admitted he was most worried about who Paul Tracy called "the cleanest guy out there" as Kenseth had the speed to win -- just not the track position.
"I felt like I saved the most rear tire," Kenseth said. "My car drove a lot better in the feature… but I ran myself out of time. I should have went a little sooner…. I was the fastest car at the end, but I wasn't in front."
Trouble for Tony Stewart
Stewart had himself a miserable night, declining to be interviewed after losing 11 total positions in all three races combined. A last-place finish in Heat 2 (13th) was the worst of his SRX career as he fell 31 points behind Labonte for the SRX title.
That makes it near-impossible for Stewart to mount a comeback, even with two dirt wins on his resume from 2021 (Knoxville and Eldora). The series is racing at two new tracks this year (I-55 Raceway and Sharon Speedway) to put everyone on a level playing field.
Odds 'N' Ends
Local All-Star Cole Williams won Heat 2, raising hopes he'd be competitive in the Main Event. But the two-time Nashville Fairgrounds Champion had an ill-handling car in the Main and wound up 12th... Ryan Newman never contended a week after his first career SRX win at Stafford. Runs of seventh, sixth and sixth dropped him to third in the standings behind both Labonte and Andretti. "We were a little tight center and lacking forward drive off most of the night," he said. "No matter how I drove it, it was kind of the same way."