The Frontstretch: NASCAR's "Almost Upset" Puts Spotlight Back on Labonte by Thomas Bowles -- Monday June 26, 2006

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NASCAR's "Almost Upset" Puts Spotlight Back on Labonte

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 26, 2006

 

Rarely will you find an athlete that retires at the top of his game, and NASCAR's no exception to that rule. For every Rusty Wallace that has the guts to end his career before he completely falls off the peak of the mountain, there are ten men who fail to look up to see the end only to find they’re already buried underground. Larger than life racers like Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty, men who dominated their sport for generations, became prime examples of what it’s like to hang on to the dream too long, to continue to strap in behind the wheel when their chances of crossing the finish line first had slipped to marginal at best, their competition level worse than rookies entering the sport half their age. Ending their career shells of their former selves, these men become criticized for being in the way instead of being idolized for how many times they showed the way, far in front of the rest of the field.

Yet, as tough as some of those endings may be, each athlete has one or two moments in the final hours of their career in which they suddenly become as talented they used to be. For a few fleeting moments, when the right opportunity presents itself, they dig deep within themselves and suddenly memories come flowing back, with raw talent overcoming the difficulties that arrive with age. Such a moment is enough to remind those young and old how good you really were, providing the high needed to carry both the fans and the athlete through final seasons peppered with disappointment.

For Terry Labonte, that special moment happened at Infineon.

It certainly didn’t seem that way on lap 71, when Labonte inherited the lead at the road course for the first time. Running for the single car team of Hall of Fame Racing, Labonte had run most of the race outside the Top 30, struggling with an ill-handling car in what has become an all too familiar theme for the veteran’s final few seasons in the Cup series.

This time, though, crew chief Philippe Lopez had a plan revolving around pit strategy and fuel mileage. Counting on Labonte’s veteran experience, Lopez asked Labonte to shortshift and conserve on gas; having last come in for a pit stop on a lap 60 caution when the leaders had stayed on the track, Lopez calculated the 96 car would be able to run the final 50 laps without stopping for fuel. Fingers crossed, Lopez was hoping that the gamble would pay off not with a win, but with a Top 10 finish; once the leaders pitted for their green flag stops, they had begun running Labonte down at an alarming pace of 1.5 seconds a lap.

As the laps counted down, everyone waited impatiently for Labonte to become the sitting duck, consumed more with a possible Tony Stewart – Jeff Gordon showdown than an improbable Labonte upset. Then, all of a sudden, it was as if someone flipped a switch; as second place Gordon closed in, Labonte came to life. It was as if a new man was behind the wheel of the 96; lap times went down by full seconds, the car’s handling went from out of control to nearly flawless, and Labonte was quickly gaining confidence the car he was in had enough fuel to make it to the end.

While Gordon was able to pass Labonte for the lead on lap 88, a few laps later something astounding was happening; Gordon wasn’t pulling away. Labonte suddenly found himself running the fastest laps among the leaders, and was chasing Gordon back down with the patience and precision the two time Nextel Cup champion has always been known for. A single car team that had finished no better than 16th in its short time on the circuit was now beginning to believe it was capable of an upset that would easily challenge David Gilliland’s Busch win a week earlier as one of the biggest NASCAR upsets this decade.

Just as things were heating up, a series of late cautions bunched up the field and added to the classic suspense of the moment. Every restart, fans new and old were suddenly pulling with every fiber of their being for Gordon to get into Turn 1 a little squirly, allowing Labonte to sneak by and put the stamp on a win that would punctuate what is surely a Hall of Fame career with Hall of Fame Racing.

Alas, in the end it was not to be; in the closing stages, Labonte could never get the traction he needed, fading to third behind Ryan Newman by the time the checkered flag fell. The fuel tank had lasted…but the fantasy had fallen just short.

Still, that fleeting moment had finally come…a man whose inner frustration at how his career was ending was palpable in a one on one interview just one month earlier in Charlotte now found himself attending a mandatory postrace press conference for finishing among the Top 3, a feat Labonte hadn’t achieved since his win at Darlington in August 2003.

Perhaps that was the greatest gift of all for the 49-year-old Texan. If you thought Ricky Rudd wasn’t being given enough attention when he retired last year, well, you’re practically filing a lawsuit in the case of Labonte. Instead of getting criticized for his struggles late in his career, it’s even worse…Labonte’s simply been forgotten. With his soft-spoken personality and his struggles at the back of the pack in recent years, Texas Terry will go through entire race weekends when he’s entered in the event without his name being mentioned. How one of only four men to win a NASCAR Cup championship in two different decades could be dropped from the radar screen is beyond me…but it’s happened. Luckily, Sunday gave writers the opportunity to right that wrong, and Labonte the opportunity to shine in the spotlight he often sneaks away from, one final time.

One would hope this finish gives Labonte the same amount of momentum it gave the small team he was filling in for. More than likely, though, it will be the final time we’ll see Labonte near the top of the sport’s biggest stage; running all but one of the remaining races on his schedule with his part time No. 44 team of Hendrick Motorsports, Labonte has yet to finish higher than 25th in that car this season.

Yes, Texas Terry deserves better in his final days on tour; instead, this one fleeting moment is likely the ending highlight.

But what a highlight it was.

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