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‘Texas Terry’ To Drive Off Into Sunset At Talladega

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 19 2014

Terry Labonte will take his final ride in a Sprint Cup car Sunday at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP photo by David Tulis)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

NASCAR champion Terry Labonte will bookend a stellar Sprint Cup Series career that began at Darlington Raceway in 1978 with his 890th and (really) final start in today’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Through NASCAR’s evolution from regional curiosity to national obsession, “Texas Terry” has remained unflappable and largely underappreciated during a tour of duty highlighted by 22 Cup victories and championships in 1984 and 1996 with Hendrick Motorsports.

On Sunday, Labonte will drive the No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford Fusion on the high-banked, 2.66-mile Alabama layout where he scored victories in 1989 in a Ford owned by NASCAR icon Junior Johnson and 1997 in a Chevrolet fielded by Rick Hendrick.

“After I came here the first time I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to come back a second time much less 61 times, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Labonte, 57, said during news conference at Talladega’s infield media center. “Of course, you know it’s only about the third time I’ve said, ‘This is gonna be my last race,’ but this is really gonna be the last one.

“I’ve enjoyed running a few races on-and-off here the past few years with Frank (Stoddard) and his team and C&J Energy as a sponsor. Those guys, C&J, are originally from Corpus Christi (Terry’s hometown) and headquartered in Houston now, so they’re guys I’ve known for a long time and it’s been fun to run a few races with them. I’ve always looked forward to coming to Talladega. We have a couple of wins down here and it’s a track, as everybody knows, if you stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap you’ve got an opportunity for a decent finish.”

Labonte’s 2014 deal with Stoddard covered the series’ four superspeedway/restrictor plate races contested on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and sister track Talladega. In typical Labonte style, no special

One of the sports gentlemen, Terry Labonte, will wrap up his Cup career on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Sharon Ellman)

ceremony is planned to mark his exit.

“It would be neat to have a neat picture of it afterwards,” said Labonte, NASCAR’s former “Iron Man” with a streak of 655 consecutive starts. “There are some pretty cool places in the infield out there. I’ve heard about some of them. I haven’t been out there, but I’ve heard about some of them. Seriously, it just so happened this was the last race that we had planned to run this year. At the beginning of the year I told them this would be the last year for real. But as far as anything special, no. It’s just what it is.”

Fittingly, Labonte said the “coolest” victory in his career occurred at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Labonte qualified fourth on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval for the Primestar 500 on March 28, 1999 and led 124 of 334 laps en route to a victory under caution that was a personal eye-opener.

“That’s the first time I think I ever noticed a crowd,” said Labonte, driver that day of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet. “I was passing Dale Jarrett. We had really run good all day and they beat us on a pit stop and I ran him down and passed him with less than 10 laps to go and I saw the whole place stand up. I had never noticed the crowd actually stand up at the track and I thought to myself, ‘Oh man, I better not screw this up because I think there are 200,000 people pulling for me and they’re gonna be mad if I don’t win this thing.’ So it was cool to win that race in my home state.”

In contrast was Labonte’s Cup debut on Sept. 4, 1978 on Darlington Raceway’s daunting 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval. It was one of five races Labonte ran for car-owner Billy Hagan in 1978, the start of an association that lasted through the 1986 season and produced six Cup wins.

“The good thing about it for me to run my first race there (South Carolina) is being from Texas I really wasn’t that familiar with Darlington,” said Labonte, who was 16 when he began racing stock cars fielded by his father, Bob, and then by Hagan. “If I would have been, I probably wouldn’t have picked that one as my first race. They had a rookie meeting and they showed a video that played all the things not to do. I was sitting there watching that thing and the guy that starred in that video was the guy that drove the car I was driving the year before. So everything he did wrong they pointed out in that video.

“I sat there and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, the car is identical. It’s the same paint scheme, same number – everything.’ I sat right there and thought, ‘The thing to do is not make next year’s video. Don’t make all the highlights of the things not to do.’

“I qualified and the longest race I think I’d ever run was a 200-lapper around a half-mile track. I started that race and I just ran and ran and thought, ‘My gosh, these guys could wreck down here. Holy smoke!’ They tore up a bunch of cars and it was typical Darlington. It was wild. I ran and the race lasted forever. That was the longest race I ever ran in my life. I was trying to figure out how many laps were left and finally the thing ended and I never thought to look at the scoreboard and I finished fourth. I’m going to the garage and Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison came over and congratulated me, and I thought that was the coolest thing.”

Labonte’s resume includes wins in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series, the 1989 International Race of Champions title and induction into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at TMS in 2005. Labonte also was joined by brother Bobby and fellow-Cup star Jeff Gordon at TMS owner O. Bruton Smith’s elaborate Speedway Motorsports Inc. groundbreaking ceremony in a vacant pasture on April 11, 1995.

“I remember racing at Texas World Speedway (in College Station) in the late 1970s, early 1980s and they didn’t draw much of a crowd,” Labonte said on the night of the induction ceremony. “When they built Texas Motor Speedway, I was probably a little concerned. But they had more people for the groundbreaking than they had for the race at Texas World Speedway, so that told me it was probably going to work. I don’t think the people had any idea of what they were going to see. It’s a showplace.”

Asked to name his biggest rivals – during a timeframe dominated by seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – NASCAR’s “Ice Man” politely deferred.

“As far as when I started, I didn’t have any rivals,” Labonte said. “There were all these guys I raced against that I looked up to as a kid and I just was thrilled to be able to actually race against guys like Richard Petty and Bobby and Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and these guys. It was just a real honor for me to be able to compete with these guys.

“I never looked at any of them as a rival. I never did, and still never really felt like I had any rivals at any point in my career. To me, it was really something special just to be able to race in NASCAR with some of the guys I really admired when I was growing up.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 19 2014
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