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Friday, November 03, 2006

Terry Labonte's final run

Older Nascar fans can speak better than I about Terry Labonte’s great driver career. Looking at his numbers, he was certainly pretty great. He won at Nascar’s trickiest tracks like Darlington, Rockingham, Richmond and North Wilkesboro. He won at the Riverside road course, Pocono, Talladega, Charlotte and Phoenix. And of course at his home state track Texas Motorspeedway. He also won two Winston Cups in 1984 and 1996, two drastically different scenes in Nascar. He finished in the top ten in points 17 times in 29 years, including 10 of 11 years from 1979 through 1989.

I didn’t grow up as a Nascar fan that watched races regularly. I was a casual fan who vaguely remembers his ’96 Cup title. As a result, I missed most of Terry Labonte’s prime and can’t really speak to how great he was. However in the past few years, while his on track performance has slipped, his impact on the sport was considerable.

In a word Labonte’s efforts are summed up as selfless. Just look at three where three different teams are in 2006. After 2004 he graciously stepped aside to let Kyle Busch run in the #5 car full-time. The young Busch went on to win Rookie of the Year and make the '06 Chase.

In 2005 Joe Gibbs’ new third team was struggling to finish races and fell out of the top 35. Not only was Jason Leffler and the 11 team running poorly, they were involved in so many crashes, Gibbs was running out of cars. They needed to not only return to the top 35 in owners points, but also bring the car home safely. So Terry was hired to qualify the 11 car at the two road courses. He obliged, finishing 12th at Sonoma to equal the team’s best finish of the year to that point.

Then after Indy, Leffler was let go and Labonte was again asked to fill in. He did so for four more races, including a ninth at Richmond, the first top ten for the new team. He had also returned the team to the top 35 in owners points, affording Gibbs to let rookies JJ Yeley and Danny Hamlin finish the rest of the year. Ultimately Hamlin helped make the team into a Chase finalist. Things could have turned out differently without Labonte’s help. Just ask Robby Gordon or Michael Waltrip how quickly seasons can unravel without the top 35 safety net.

This year Labonte again helped a brand new team get started. Hall of Fame Racing asked Labonte to drive the first five races to ensure solid footing for their debut season. Labonte also drove the two road courses including a 3rd at Sonoma after leading late. Obviously his Champion’s provisional had much to do with Labonte’s hiring. At the same time, Labonte did his part, finishing races and keeping the car in one piece.

And now this Sunday Labonte will run his final Nascar Cup race at Texas. With a part-time team, he has virtually no shot of winning. Still, it would be nice to see him run well and have a nice finish. How about staying out on the first caution and lead a lap or two? He deserves to be recognized, not only for his great driving career, but also his humble, selfless style.