In Part Two of Philip Pegler's 'Masters of the Game' series, he will highlight a racer they called the 'Iceman.' No, not Kimi Raikkonen...we're talking about two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte.
My first taste of NASCAR came at the very core of the sport's rich heritage, Darlington Raceway, in South Carolina. The 1996 Dura Lube 200, won by Texas' own Terrance Lee "Terry" Labonte, set the wheels in motion for my long standing love-affair with one of the world's greatest sports and, eighteen years later, I have to admit that the excitement of that very first race experience has in no way diminished. However, if you will allow me, I would like to digress, just for a moment anyway.
Photo by: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The odd thing about Earnhardt's apparent decline was that it was very hard for anyone to pinpoint what was actually going on. There was no logical pattern to his results. One week he'd start 37th and finish 4th, and the next week he'd qualify in the low twenties and finish four laps down in 33rd. There were instances where he'd run well at a track's first race only to return six months later appearing to be lost at sea. His ever-loyal race fans would say that their beloved driver still had it and that the car was not as strong as it had once been. Others would say that, following his infamous crash at Talladega in 1996, Earnhardt had lost his nerve and was effectively, "all washed up". The Richard Childress Racing team stood behind their driver throughout, assuring everyone that they simply needed to build better cars in order to give Dale what he needed and that he was as good as he'd ever been. But through all of it, his performances on superspeedways remained as great as ever, so it was obvious that he'd not lost his edge, but perhaps his team had.
Looking back to that August day in 1996, I was pulling for Labonte because his was the only name in the starting lineup that I'd actually heard of. I'd bought a car from Rick Hendrick's Honda dealership and had learned that his NASCAR team had three drivers: Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Ken Schrader. Of the three, only Labonte was in this particular race and, starting 2nd, I figured he was a good bet. Plus, my favorite number was, and remains no.5, and that was Terry's car number.
In classic Labonte fashion, Terry drove a clean race, leading the most laps (66) and taking the victory over pole sitter, Mark Martin. Over the track loudspeakers, I remember being taken aback by how quietly spoken and gracious Terry sounded. I had originally considered that NASCAR was a sport full of Southern farm boys who chewed tobacco in between meals of chicken fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, yet here was this racing driver, humble and modest. Terry Labonte, a genuine gentleman, reserved.
As with Earnhardt, Labonte's performances began to wane towards the end of the 1990s and the man who'd won it all, twice over, seemed to be struggling at Hendrick Motorsports. Four years removed from his second Championship, he appeared to become a non-factor, and while teammate Jeff Gordon was lapping up victory after victory, Labonte sometimes struggled to simply finish on the lead lap. While many car owners would have shown Labonte the door, Rick Hendrick's loyalty was never in question and he repeatedly stood behind his driver, knowing not only what he was capable of on the track, but also how valuable an asset he was to the entire Hendrick Motorsports team. It is surely a testament to Terry's strengths that his primary sponsor, Kellogg's, remained with him through to the end of his career at HMS in 2006. Terry Labonte, valued champion; Terry Labonte, class-act.
2004 must have been one of tremendous frustration and disappointment for the entire no.5 team. The improved performance that the team had so clearly shown in 2003 plateaued and then subsided. Terry found himself mired in the mid-field once again and, in October, he announced his decision to retire from full-time competition at the end of the year. In September, following a savage-sounding qualifying crash at Dover, Terry was asked to compare hitting the new SAFER barrier (at other tracks) with Dover's concrete wall (which still didn't have any). Terry replied that he'd fortunately never hit a safer barrier so he couldn't really say. The fact that they'd been an increasing presence at many of NASCAR's tracks since 2001 is another indicator of his ability to avoid trouble. Terry Labonte, a controlled, consummate professional.
While Earnhardt won 76 races and 7 championships, Labonte has gone about his business in an entirely different manner. Terry has avoided controversy and quietly delivered some of the Sport's greatest statistics. But more than that, Terry has garnered the respect and appreciation of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have had the privilege of sharing in his incredible life and career. We are left with something he never had; we have his example.
Terry Labonte, a loving, devoted, family man. Terry Labonte, a talented and versatile, consummate professional. Terry Labonte, a multiple race winner and two-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion. Terry Labonte, Master of the Game.
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About this article
|Drivers||Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Terry Labonte , Ken Schrader , Kimi Raikkonen Shop Now , Ned Jarrett , Junior Johnson , Billy Hagan , Jim Redman , Mark Martin|
|Teams||Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports|