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Finally, Texas

  • Nov 04, 2006

FORT WORTH, Texas (Nov. 4, 2006) – The last two years have moved quickly for Terry Labonte.  It was October 2004 when the two-time NASCAR champion announced plans to run a limited NEXTEL Cup schedule as he wound down to a career finale in his home state of Texas.

It seems the days have passed double-time since that press conference at Hendrick Motorports 25 months ago, but Sunday’s Dickies 500 has been, in reality, 29 years in the making.

A 21-year-old rookie, Labonte made his first NASCAR start in the Southern 500 at South Carolina’s infamous Darlington Raceway.  It was, at the time, the longest and most grueling race that Labonte, who honed his skills on the short tracks of south Texas, had ever run.

Wide-eyed, Labonte drove his No. 92 Chevrolet like a seasoned veteran in the Palmetto State heat, bringing home a fourth-place result for car owner Billy Hagan.  As fate would have it, each of the top-six finishers that afternoon—Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Labonte, Bobby Allison and Bill Elliott—ended their respective careers with at least one Cup championship.  Labonte himself won two.

The Corpus Christi native entered four more races in 1978 before running his first full campaign the next year, finishing 10th in points while battling fellow first-year drivers Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant in one of the top rookie classes of all time.

The first of Labonte’s 22 career wins came, ironically, at Darlington on Sept. 1, 1980, and the first of the aforementioned championships was clinched four years later, in 1984.  The second coronation came in 1996 in a close battle with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

Simple math shows a dozen years between Cup titles—the longest lull of any driver with more than two—but those who follow NASCAR know the accomplishment was far from simple, speaking volumes about Labonte’s strength of character and perseverance.  And, of course, his undeniable talent.

“I’ve always admired his ability and the commitment he’s shown in his many years of racing,” said Gordon, himself a four-time champion and future hall of famer.  “You can’t help but be amazed by someone who has the talent to win two championships more than a decade apart, especially when so much has changed in our sport.”

Quite probably, Labonte has adapted to the sport’s many changes better than any other driver in history.  He’s raced in four different decades—posting wins in three of them—and earned two titles in two different eras.  Both on-track and otherwise, Labonte has enjoyed a front-row seat to the evolution of NASCAR and, as most would agree, played a major role in it.

“I think I was in the sport during some of its greatest times and saw some of its greatest changes,” Labonte reflected.  “I saw the sport go from running races at Bristol, where we probably had 20,000 or 25,000 people, to now we have 160,000 people.

“I feel like I was part of it during some big changes in that span there.  But I think the sport is great.  It’s going to continue to grow.  We’ve got so many sponsors involved in our sport, such as Kellogg’s, that not only do a great job promoting their team but the entire series. I think it’s got a long, bright future.”

At Texas, Labonte will race, appropriately, a No. 44 Kellogg’s Chevrolet with a special tribute paint scheme designed by Hendrick Motorsports.  It will mark the 14th year with his longtime sponsor and the 13th with car owner Rick Hendrick, who describes Labonte in two ways: all-time great driver and rock-solid fishing buddy.

“He’s always been a team player and a great friend,” Hendrick said recently.  “Terry could’ve accomplished even more in his career had he been a little more selfish, but there’s not a selfish bone in his body. He’s never been one of those guys with his hand up for anything. He’s a great talent, but he’s just a great human being.  When you talk about the total package, that’s what you get with Terry Labonte.”

That package includes the two Cup championships, the 1989 IROC title, his “Iron Man” streak of 655 consecutive races and two all-star event victories.  In his 847 starts, he’s amassed 22 wins, 27 poles, 182 top-five finishes and an astounding 361 top-10s.

Labonte has been a top-10 fixture in Cup points nearly his entire career, showing up there 17 times in NASCAR’s record book.  He’s completed nearly 250,000 laps, logged almost 303,000 miles and, assuming he finishes on the lead lap Sunday, will add another 501 miles to his résumé.

“I really feel like I’ve been awful fortunate,” Labonte said.  “To be able to compete in this sport for as long as I have and to have been able to win a couple of championships and some races and do the things that we did are really special.”

There’s absolutely no doubt that Sunday will be emotional for those who have followed Labonte closely.  For many, it will be a bittersweet end to an illustrious career.  Others, including Labonte himself, will see it as an exciting new beginning.

“I consider him one of my best friends,” said Gary Dehart, the crew chief of Labonte’s 1996 title-winning team.  “It’s going to be a touching moment. I cried big time when he won the championship (in 1996) and was emotional in 1984 when he won it with Billy Hagan.  I started working there (for Billy Hagan) in 1982, so I was with Terry for both his titles.”

Hendrick says he’s happy Labonte can go out on his own terms.

“I’m going to be proud because I’ve been a small part of Terry’s career,” Hendrick said.  “And I’m really going to feel good because he was able to go into retirement the way he wanted to do it.  I’m happy because he’s happy.

“He and I are in the car business together and we’re great friends.  We’ll do a lot of fishing.  We’re just going into the next phase of our relationship.”

Labonte’s brother, fellow Cup champion Bobby Labonte, says it will be hard to give up a simple family tradition.

“One of the things I’m going to miss is not having him parked next to me in the motorcoach lot,” said the younger Labonte.  “We always park next to each and I’ve enjoyed that. It was a little different not having him around much the past two seasons, but now he won’t be there (at all).  It was something that I enjoyed and I’m going to miss when I go to the track.

“I’ve always admired Terry as a brother and a person.  I still do.  I think he’s just as much a champion off the track as he is on it.  I learned a lot about the sport by watching him and I know that has helped me with my career.  He always helped me when I needed it.  It didn’t matter what it was.”

Nicknamed the “Iceman” for his even-keel, unflappable demeanor, it’s difficult to gauge Labonte’s true feelings about retirement.  You do get the impression he’s ready for the next challenge—whatever that may be—but don’t expect a commitment to anything.

“I’m thankful for what we accomplished and I’m kind of looking forward to this weekend and kind of moving on and doing something else,” he said.  “But I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to be yet.

“I’m just looking forward to life after Sunday.”