Two-Time NASCAR Cup Champion Terry Labonte 'Knew How to Win'

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
There were times when NASCAR wasn't quite sure what to do with this new, young, quiet-speaking driver from Texas with that interesting last name. Was it Terry L-a-b-o-n-t-e? Or L-a-B-o-n-t-e? Or maybe L-’-B-o-n-t-e? Or even L-A-B-o-n-t-e?
You might find it spelled in several ways - incorrectly in many cases.
But any early confusion began to clear on Labor Day weekend of 1978. At that point, L-A-B-O-N-T-E in Billy Hagan's # 92 Chevrolet was fourth in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The three riders in front of him were pretty good shoes: three-time champion Cale Yarborough, four-time champion Darrell Waltrip and seven-time champion Richard Petty.
This is intoxicating company for the 21-year-old at his first Cup series start. Not his first Darlington start ... his first Cup series start EVERYWHERE. Two seasons later - after 58 more starts - Labonte drove Hagan's own car in Darlington for the first of 22 victories in a career, the 1984 and 1996 in the championship with Hagan and crew chief Dale Inman, then Rick Hendrick and his crew The winning track was boss Gary DeHart or Oh, and by the way, 2016 induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
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"For some reason Darlington has always been good for me," said Labonte, who was long retired from 37 years in the Cup. “When Billy asked if I wanted to go to Darlington, I said I thought we were going to Martinsville and North Wilkesboro, places like this. He said we are ... but we wanted to go to Darlington too. So I said, 'Oh ... OK'. There wasn't a lot of discussion. I remember thinking, 'At least I'll be driving a race.' "
Labonte had moved from Texas to North Carolina in 1978 at the age of 21. He grew up riding go-karts and quarter-midgets, and won a national quarter-midget championship when he was nine. As a teenager, he and his crew chief / father, Bob, had successfully advanced to become short-track stock cars in the Houston area. The team showed talent on both dirt and tarmac, winning track championships in Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio between 1975 and 1977.
The next logical step was to go north. In 1978 the family moved to North Carolina and Terry joined Hagan's team with Skip Manning. When Hagan decided to make a change, he threw Labonte feet first into the cup. In the weeks following that fourth place in Darlington, the team was seventh in Richmond, ninth in Martinsville, 24th in Charlotte and 13th in Atlanta. (With just five races, he retained his rookie status for 1979).
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After a few missteps with crew chief Darrell Bryant in 1978, Labonte started to shine in 1979 with 13 top 10 placements and a 10th in points. The first of his 22 wins came in Darlington on Labor Day weekend 1980, exactly two years after his first Cup start. He started tenth and only led the final two laps to beat David Pearson with a finish that got in his way in the most unusual way:
He was a competitive fourth coming for the two-to-go flag when the lead Pearson suddenly struck the wall on Turn 2. Runner-up Dale Earnhardt also fell and third-placed Benny Parsons spun onto Turn 2's apron. Labonte steered through the chaos and overtook the wounded Pearson just before the yellow and white flag. The official MOV was "under caution" but the real lead was maybe half a fender.
"I haven't browsed oil or water or anything," said Labonte. “Obviously something happened to them that didn't happen to me. I don't know ... maybe I was on the wrong track or something. I was wide open when I caught Pearson exiting turn 4. I don't think he ever saw me coming. White and yellow were off so I knew I had to pass it before the line. When we got there (running the bottom groove) I could tell that I hit him. I couldn't believe we just won the Southern 500. "
Labonte won six times with Hagan, four times with Junior Johnson and twelve times with Hendrick. His last full season was with Hendrick in 2004, but he didn't retire until he completed 10 part seasons (2005-2014) with 12 different owners. Among them: Joe Gibbs, Michael Waltrip, Richard Petty, Ray Evernham and Frankie Stoddard. He ended his career on a 0-for-63 slide, maybe another former star case that might last too long?
“He was a great racing driver, a cash driver,” said Inman, his crew chief for the 1984 Cup. “As we approached this championship, he knew how to win. In the fall of 1982 he was seriously injured in Riverside (leg, ankle, severe facial injuries; eight days in hospital) and it took him a while to get over it. But when he did - when he recovered and was right again - we really clicked. He did well in those big money all-star races. "
Unsurprisingly, Labonte hasn't apologized for the last 10 mediocre seasons. "I had fun and had fun on these rides," he said. “I had done enough things all season, but I didn't want to stop completely. I realized that there was a whole world outside of racing. A couple of races here and there was exactly what I wanted. I have no regrets at all. "
But wait ... there is more
• Labonte's two trophy titles spanned 12 years, a record for the time between titles. His first, with Hagan and Inman, came in 1984; his second, with Hendrick and DeHart, came in 1996.
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
• Ironically, Labonte took the first of 22 wins on the 1980 Labor Day weekend in Darlington. The last of his 22 wins also came in Darlington, on Labor Day weekend 2003.
• Labonte was part of the 1979 NASCAR rookie class that eventually teamed up to nine cup titles and 116 wins. Also in this class: ROTY winners Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Joe Milliken. All but Milliken reached the top 10 in points this season.
• Labonte drove a Hagan Camaro to sixth overall and first GTO in the SunTrust / IMSA 24 Hours of Daytona 1984 with Hagan and Gene Felton. Later that spring, they finished eighth overall and first in the GTO in the 12 hours from Sebring.
• Labonte and brother Bobby are among the three pairs of brothers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, along with Richard and Maurice Petty as well as Glen and Leonard Wood.

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