Terry Labonte, Stock Cars, Class of 2017
By Godwin Kelly
Pardon Terry Labonte if he has a certain love and respect for Darlington Raceway because his storybook NASCAR career bookends at the stately 1.336-mile oval that looks like a big egg from the air.
Labonte, part of the fabled NASCAR Cup Series rookie Class of 1979, which included Joe Millikan, Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt, captured his first stock-car victory in the Grand Ol’ Southern 500 at Darlington.
Some 23 years later, his last career win came in the same event – at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway oval – on Labor Day Weekend. It all seemed so fitting. One of the sturdiest men ever to race besting the track “too tough to tame.”
The now 60-year-old driver from Corpus Christi, TX made his first big-league start at 21. Over the next 37 years, he started 890 Cup races, collecting 22 victories and two championships.
“I just feel so fortunate that I've been able to compete in the sport as long as I have, and to have been able to make a living at something I love doing,” Labonte said.
Labonte holds various records of achievement, but the one likely to stand the test of time is his years between NASCAR Cup championships. No other driver in NASCAR history has that wide a gap between his first and second titles.
He won his first in 1984 at 28, after coming off injuries late in the 1983 season. Twelve years and many life experiences later, he snagged his second after a yearlong battle with his young Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. Car owner Rick Hendrick famously said later that season that he had “taken enough aspirin to kill a normal human” because of his unbridled success.
Gordon was hoping to lasso his third consecutive title. But despite a season-high 10 victories, he was unable to catch Labonte as they came down to the wire. Those were the days when championships were decided on a season of point accumulation. Labonte scored 21 Top 5s, including two wins, and raced with a broken hand the last two races.
Labonte is also one of a handful of drivers to wear the “Ironman” crown for most consecutive starts. His streak ended in 2000 at 655. Gordon now holds the record at 797.
But later in that 2000 season, he saw his family make history again when younger brother Bobby won the Cup title.
Now that it is all said and done, Terry Labonte said one of the best moments of his long career was his first victory at Darlington.
“The coolest thing I remember that day is all the people riding on my car to Victory Lane after the race,” he said. “The people used to jump on your car and you'd ride to Victory Lane.”
Later Labonte and his team saw pictures of the car and couldn’t even identify a lot of the people.
“Our pit crew guys were on it but so were these others and we didn't even know them.”
And those folks had no idea they were riding with future NASCAR greatness.
Godwin Kelly has covered various forms of racing, including NASCAR, IMSA, AMA and NHRA, for the Daytona Beach News-Journal since 1979. Kelly, who has won several national writing awards, has penned five books about racing including a biography about Fireball Roberts.