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800th Start Adds to Labonte’s ‘Iron Man’ Legacy

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (July 19, 2004) – In July 1978, Terry Labonte was busy preparing for a racing career that would begin later that summer in Darlington, S.C.  The 21-year-old rookie, who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, had just moved to Charlotte in pursuit of his dream of driving stock cars in NASCAR’s premier series.

In July 2004, that long, winding road that originally lured Labonte from south Texas to the Carolinas will lead to yet one more milestone in his storied history.

On July 25 at New Hampshire International Speedway, Labonte will start the 800th race of his career in the Siemens 300.

And yes, you can assume that the NASCAR landscape looks quite different today than it did 26 years ago—figuratively and geographically.

“I know no one ever imagined racing in New Hampshire when I started back then,” said Labonte, who now pilots the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports.  “It was all about Daytona (Fla.), Darlington and other tracks in the South.”

Labonte’s 800 starts place him fifth on NASCAR’s all-time list, behind only Richard Petty, Dave Marcis, Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip.

“I had never paid attention to all the numbers, statistics or anything like that until I got close to Richard Petty’s record for consecutive starts (in 1996),” Labonte said.  “But eventually, you realize that’s how fans and the media evaluate your career.

“I’ve had the good fortune to stay healthy through most of these years.  I’ve had good race cars and strong teams around me, too.  Otherwise, I don’t think we’d be talking about running in 800 races.”

In April 1996, Labonte started his 514th straight race to break Petty’s record.  In the process, he made the transition from NASCAR’s “Ice Man,” a nickname Labonte earned for his cool demeanor on and off the track, to the sport’s “Iron Man.”  The latter was a title he held for the next six years.

Labonte ran it up to 655 in a row before injuries sustained in a July 2000 wreck at Daytona International Speedway, forced him to miss two races later that summer.  His streak ended Aug. 5, 2000.  Rudd then broke Labonte’s record two years later by starting his 656th consecutive race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

From the time he debuted in 1978, Labonte began building his reputation as a quiet professional who did most of his talking behind the wheel of a stock car.  That calm, steady approach to the frenzied pace of a career in racing not only led to him being known as the sport’s “Ice Man,” but it also helped Labonte start racking up wins and poles at a fairly fast clip.

He got his first victory in September 1980 at Darlington Raceway, in only his 59th start.

“I remember doing interviews in the press box after that race and hearing my car owner, Billy Hagan, tell everyone that we would win the championship within five years,” Labonte recalls.  “I looked at him like he was crazy and wondered why he would make such a claim.  But over the next few seasons, it became pretty clear that Billy knew what he was talking about because we won it all in 1984.”

Labonte will tell you that the following year, he made maybe five or six sponsor appearances for Piedmont Airlines.  When asked how much the sport has changed since then, he draws a comparison between those days and the sponsor obligations he was asked to meet in 1997 after winning his second championship.

“We probably did close to a hundred appearances or corporate visits that year,” Labonte said.  “By that time, it wasn’t just your primary sponsor—like Kellogg’s—that needed to be taken care of.  We had all of the associate sponsors at Hendrick Motorsports, along with Chevrolet and some other manufacturers.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun and I wouldn’t trade those two championships for anything.”

Since first turning a wheel in a NASCAR race more than 25 years ago, Labonte has advanced into the elite class of stock car drivers—two championships, more than 20 victories, $36 million in winnings, a 19-time all-star and now 800 career starts.

In 1982, at the age of 25, Labonte became the youngest driver in motor-sports history to win $1 million and the 12th NASCAR driver to do so.  He won the 1989 International Race of Champions (IROC) title and, in 1996, Labonte claimed his second career Cup Series championship, edging teammate Jeff Gordon by a mere 37 points in one of the closest races in history.

Now in his 27th year of competition, Labonte is helping Hendrick Motorsports celebrate its 20th anniversary in NASCAR.  He can easily look back to see where stock-car racing has been and, through the eyes of a champion, Labonte looks forward and envisions continued growth for his favorite sport.

“NASCAR has come so far and I really don’t see it slowing down,” Labonte said.  “They brought in a new series sponsor this year and NEXTEL hasn’t missed a beat.  We’re racing in new markets that weren’t even dreamed of in 1978—like Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and probably even New Hampshire.

“You hate to see tracks like Rockingham (N.C.) and Darlington kind of get shuffled aside.  I’ve won races at those tracks, so certainly I’m disappointed.  But you have to look at the positive things that come from racing in newer, larger markets and appreciate the fact that it’s all helping the sport continue to grow.”

TERRY LABONTE – THE ROAD TO 800

1.  Sept. 4, 1978, Darlington, S.C., finished fourth
50.  June 1, 1980, College Station, Texas, finished fifth
100.  Feb. 21, 1982, Richmond, Va., finished fifth
150.  Sept. 5, 1983, Darlington, finished fifth
200.  June 2, 1985, Riverside, Calif., fifth career victory
250.  March 29, 1987, Darlington, finished 32nd
300.  Oct. 16, 1988, North Wilkesboro, N.C., finished fourth
350.  Aug. 12, 1990, Watkins Glen, N.Y., finished 14th
400.  May 24, 1992, Concord, N.C., finished sixth
450.  Feb. 20, 1994, Daytona Beach, Fla., finished third
500.  Aug. 13, 1995, Watkins Glen, finished fifth
550.  April 20, 1997, Martinsville, Va., finished fourth
600.  Sept. 20, 1998, Dover, Del., finished 18th
650.  April 16, 2000, Talladega, Ala., finished seventh
700.  Sept. 23, 2001, Dover, finished 17th
750.  March 16, 2003, Darlington, finished 24th

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