Masters of the game: Terry Labonte

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.

Masters of the game: 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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes a selfie in front of a statue of his father
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes a selfie in front of a statue of his father

Photo by: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Anyone who knew me when I was in my early twenties will tell you that I worshipped the very asphalt that Dale Earnhardt drove on. For me, there were 42 drivers and then there was Dale Earnhardt. The man could do no wrong in my eyes, and as I saw the approaching twilight of his great career, I believed that Earnhardt would be that one exception to the inevitable expiration date that stands before every professional athlete. As Earnhardt's wins became less of a formality, the mood of many of those who dreaded his very presence on the racetrack began to shift. As Earnhardt often appeared to be searching for scraps on Sunday afternoons, many of his former haters began to stand behind him and, together with his fellow competitors, this was never more obvious than following his historic victory in the 1998 Daytona 500.

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.

Terry Labonte
Terry Labonte

Photo by: Jim Redman

This brings me back around to Terry Labonte. The circumstances surrounding a great athlete's gradual decline are not always what they seem. For Labonte, before he embarked on what many now regard as the second half of his career, many people were suggesting that he'd passed his prime on the race track. Already a Winston Cup Champion in 1984, Labonte had departed Billy Hagan Racing at the end of 1986 to drive for Junior Johnson. Despite Championship results of 3rd, 4th and 10th, Labonte left at the end of 1989 to drive Richard Jackson's iconic no.1 Skoal Bandit Oldsmobile. Terry returned to Billy Hagan's team from 1991-1993 but the team was unable to recapture the magic that had brought them their first Series' Championship. In 1994, he joined Hendrick Motorsports and with the leadership of crew chief Gary DeHart and primary sponsorship from Kellogg's, Hendrick's flagship team technically had all of the necessary ingredients to become a legitimate contender for the Series' title. But was Labonte still up to the task?

Terry Labonte
Terry Labonte

Photo by: Kurt Dahlstrom

After narrowly missing out on the 1995 Championship to Jeff Gordon, many forecast that 1996 would be the year that Dale Earnhardt clinched his 8th Winston Cup Championship, with Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Terry and younger brother Bobby also in contention. After a strong start, where he won at Rockingham and Atlanta, Earnhardt appeared well on his way and, as the Series approached the summer stretch, he led the championship convincingly. However, while Gordon and Jarrett each had their own problems, Terry was busy clicking off one top five finish after another and, following the race at New Hampshire in July, took the lead from Earnhardt atop the standings. A vicious accident at Talladega spelled the end of Earnhardt's campaign, and as Jarrett faded and Gordon briefly attempted a final charge, Terry hung tough, seeing off the competition with unprecedented consistency. This was done while coping with a broken hand; an injury sustained in practice at Phoenix with three races remaining. 2 wins, 21 top fives and 24 top tens from 31 races, Labonte raised the bar to a new level for future championship-winners. Terry's style was never flamboyant, but that didn't matter because he had something far, far more important. He had incredible quantities of finesse and car control, coupled with the all-crucial sense of anticipation. One might say that he 'killed them with consistency'. Terry Labonte, shrewd, astute, unflappable, cool under fire.

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.

Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo by: Michael C. Johnson

For me, Labonte encapsulates the meaning of that very word, 'gentleman'. We often hear Dale Jarrett's father called 'Gentleman' Ned Jarrett, and perhaps we might consider Jeff Burton, "The Mayor", to be cut from a similar cloth. Labonte has the overall balance right. For close to three decades in the sport, Terry has represented himself, his family, his sponsors, those for whom he drove, and indeed the sport itself, at the highest level. Very rarely has he been the cause of an accident and very rarely has he found himself in the middle of one not of his own making. He has delivered results on the track in close to every form of professional Motorsports (with the exception of IndyCar) and after four decades in the Sport, has won on every type of track. Terry Labonte, gracious and versatile.

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.

Terry Labonte
Terry Labonte

Photo by: Kurt Dahlstrom

On the evening of August 30, 2003 I had a thought that something special was about to happen. The season had been a marked improvement for the no.5 team and with the arrival of crew chief, Jim Long (since 2002) and the new Monte-Carlo body style effectively resetting the development war in the NASCAR garage, Terry indicated that he was hopeful of contending for another Championship. And, indeed, for a while it appeared that way. For all those that doubted Terry's abilities, his victory in the 53rd Southern 500 at Darlington, the last one on Labor Day, silenced the critics and demonstrated that his skills, at age 46, were still there in their entirety. His outlook appeared positive and, with relatively little change in the cars (with the exception of a reduction in rear spoiler height), there was no reason why he could not be a contender once again. Terry Labonte, humble, determined, optimistic.

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.

Terry Labonte, FAS Lane Racing Ford
Terry Labonte, FAS Lane Racing Ford

Photo by: Covy Moore

When we reflect on the career of Terrance Lee Labonte, we might consider several qualities. 'Gentleman' is often the first word that comes to mind and 'Consistent' might be the second. 'Versatile', 'Tenacious', 'Tough', 'Unassuming', 'Considerate'. The truth is that I've never heard a bad word spoken about Terry; not from race fans, nor fellow drivers, team owners or members of the professional media. Terry has set the bar high, not only for driving standards, but for driver conduct. He embodies what is frequently so lacking in many of today's professional sportsmen. Terry is savvy, he's fair and he's honest. He's well-spoken and it's often what he doesn't say that gives you the answers that you're actually looking for.

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.

CLICK TO READ PART ONE

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