CONCORD, N.C. – When looking back at the legacy of Terry Labonte, his success in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway stands out as one of his most impressive highlights. The Class of 2016 NASCAR Hall of Famer secured his first and last NASCAR Cup Series wins in this race – 23 years apart - making it take on a completely different meaning for him.
The 2003 Southern 500 was slated to be the last on Labor Day weekend – the race would eventually move back to its holiday weekend date in 2015. There was plenty of pomp and circumstance leading into the race. It only seemed fitting at the end when the cool and reserved Labonte simply took a lap around the track to acknowledge the fans for their support of the unique egg-shaped oval.
It was a hot race and the track was slippery once the tires put down three or four laps. Labonte managed his tires all day – a key to succeeding at the 1.366-mile track. He never once left the top 10 and was consistently putting down solid lap times over long runs. With the race coming down to a crucial pit stop with 32 laps to go, the No. 5 crew came in clutch to give the two-time champion the lead. He never looked back to secure the 22nd and final win of his career.
“Winning the last Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend (at the time), I couldn’t have picked a better race,” Labonte said.
While the ramifications of his win may not have immediately been felt on Aug. 31, 2003, they have become pretty apparent as the years have passed both at Darlington and at Hendrick Motorsports.
One of Hendrick Motorsports’ current crew chiefs was part of the winning crew that day. Alan Gustafson, who is now the crew chief of the No. 9 team and driver Chase Elliott, was an engineer making his way up the ladder within the organization since his arrival in 1999. Two years later, he would become the youngest crew chief in NASCAR when he took on the role with Kyle Busch and the reorganized No. 5 team.
Given how highly Labonte thought of Gustafson at the time, it is no surprise to “Texas Terry” that he’s had success with every driver he’s worked with. Gustafson has won races as a crew chief with Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and helped Chase Elliott win the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
“Alan was the crew chief at Pocono and we ran great all day. I knew then that Alan was going to be a top crew chief at some point,” Labonte said.
Over Labonte’s 37-year career, he has seen how things have changed over time. One such example of that is the spotters’ stand, which is a position that has been constantly growing in importance as drivers develop better relationships with their “eyes in the sky.” In 2003, spotting was still being refined as it was more of a newer concept for many drivers. The dynamic for spotting is completely different today than it was then and even more different from Labonte’s first days in the top series in 1978.
The 2003 Southern 500 was in many ways was the last of an era in NASCAR. In the years to follow, the crown jewel race would move around on the schedule. When the race moved off of Labor Day weekend it took away the uniqueness of the event from Labonte. Now, the race has not only returned to the holiday weekend, but it also kicks off the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. It couldn’t be any more exciting for everyone including Labonte, who will be at the 2022 rendition of the race as an honorary race official.
“It’s a track I enjoy going back to,” Labonte, a veteran of 54 Darlington starts, said.
It is rare for one to have their career encapsulated by a memorable win, but for Labonte, the 2003 Southern 500 will forever leave an everlasting legacy on Hendrick Motorsports. Scott Maxim, the director of powertrain at Hendrick Motorsports, listed this 2003 win as one of the marquee wins for the engine program as it nears 500 wins.
Catch the action of the 2022 Southern 500 on Sunday, Sept. 4, at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90) as Hendrick Motorsports seeks its record 12th win in the event.