Scanner Chatter: A brief moment with Terry Labonte at the end of a long career
The GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway had ended. NASCAR's 12 Chase drivers were all corralled on pit road and that's where the media sat. The scheduled race was 188 laps, but late cautions sent the race to lap 193. Terry Labonte got to drive 13.3 more miles before the denouement of his Sprint Cup Series career and dismounted from his car quietly, having a few words with crew chief and car owner Frankie Stoddard. They had just finished a lap down in 33rd, after sustaining some damage in a lap 104 crash and losing a lap in the pits repairing it. It was their only finish together not on the lead lap this season.
"The car ran good in qualifying. We had a lot better car than the finish," Labonte told WSB in the garage as the crew worked to prepare the car to put it on the team's hauler. Labonte qualified 9th, but had to start in the back, due to unapproved pre-race adjustments. That was his first top 10 qualifying run since 2005, when he was filling-in for Joe Gibbs Racing after they fired the late Jason Leffler. Labonte's last top 10 finish was a 3rd at the road course in Sonoma, California, driving for the now-defunct Hall of Fame Racing.
The Corpus Christi, Texas native made his Cup debut in 1978 (finishing 4th in the Southern 500) and went full-time in 1979 all with Billy Hagan's race team. Labonte made career start 890 for Stoddard's GoFAS Racing team and the No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford. Two championships (1984 and 1996), 22 race wins, and almost a thousand Sprint Cup starts spread over five decades - just how did it feel to finally call it quits? Labonte responded in the typical Labonte low-key, wry way.
"I don't know, this is like the third time I've run my last race. I guess I've kind of gotten used to it."
So, was it really his last race?
"I told [GoFAS Racing] last year that I wasn't going to run this year. Then we decided to run one more year, it just so happens. The only races that we run are the speedway races. It's been fun. I've enjoyed it. I've got kids older than the guys I'm racing against."
Over the last few years, particularly the last four spent with GoFAS, Labonte has almost exclusively run just the restrictor plate races, which are usually dangerous, crash-filled affairs. He turns 58 next month.
"For a small team, it's really difficult to run a mile and a half track, because of the resources the big teams have. The restrictor plate deal is a little bit of an equalizer. If you have good pit stops and stay out of trouble, you can have a good finish."
Labonte and Hagan spent much of the 1980s together, winning a championship in 1984. Then Labonte left to replace Darrell Waltrip in Junior Johnson's famed No. 11 car. After three years there and then one in Richard Jackson's No. 1 Skoal ride, Labonte and Hagan reunited for three more years, but didn't win any races. Then Labonte landed a ride with Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 team, where he had his best years and won the 1996 championship. His last race win was the Southern 500 in 2003, after several years of struggling.
He pared back to a part-time schedule after the '04 season, running some for Hendrick Motorsports, but also branching out to help some other teams. He filled-in for Petty Enterprises, Michael Waltrip Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing. His championship provisional helped secure Hall of Fame Racing a spot in the first few races of the '06 season. And he made some spot starts for some really small teams, eventually finding GoFAS Racing.
The No. 32 showed up at Talladega Friday with a triple paint scheme: the blue and white livery from his Piedmont Airlines Chevy from his '84 championship on the right side, the red and yellow and green colors from his famed Kellogg's car from the '96 title on the left, and the red and white scheme from his 1978 debut car. NASCAR doesn't allow sides of the car to look different, so the team had to overnight a different wrap to the track and some Roush-Fenway Racing decal men helped fix the scheme. Labonte was impressed.
"I got kind of surprised by it at the first of the week. It was a pretty cool idea. C&J Energy - they had the idea to do that. Those guys have been a great sponsor, some friends of ours from Texas."
Last season saw the Sprint Cup Series bid adieu to Mark Martin, who, like Labonte, stayed around long after he retired. Ken Schrader, who also drove the No. 32, ran his final Cup race last year. Labonte's brother Bobby, the 2000 Cup champ, saw his full-time schedule come to an end at the end of 2013. The same is true for Jeff Burton, whose last race as a full-timer was also at Homestead last November. And now "Texas Terry" - the "Ice Man" rides into the sunset as a new generation of drivers jousts in their own title bout.
Labonte has been "retired" for a while, so there's no reason to romanticize his curtain call. But a two-time champ will no longer wield a Cup Series car. That's something of which to pay attention. Terry Labonte exits the stage satisfied.
Hear Terry Labonte's full post-race conversation with WSB. He also discusses what he thinks of the newest Chase format and what lies next for him.