Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday December 3, 2006
Editor’s Note : Tom Bowles is off this Monday…look for a special edition of Bowles-Eye View to come your way later in the week. In its place, take a trip back down memory lane with this May interview with Terry Labonte. Terry’s career never quite ended the way he wanted it to…and as he told FS in the Spring, he wishes he could have finished it off in a much different way.
Terry Labonte is the type of veteran driver up and comers in the Nextel Cup series aspire to become. 22 wins. 2 Nextel Cup championships. A demeanor so calm, you can feel as much at ease next to him as if you're standing next to your best friend, even in the toughest of circumstances. Labonte's career, spanning three decades, will be the type of resume that will get the Texan into the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible.
Of course, Labonte's career is still going, with at least ten races left on a limited schedule Farewell Tour that'll take the 49-year-old from Pocono to Infineon. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to notice that each week. With a best finish of 12th in two seasons with his #44 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet (Labonte did have one Top 10 while subbing in Joe Gibbs' cars in 2005), cutting back the number of races he ran after the 2004 season has led to frustration and disappointment.
"The way this sport changes, you know, the technology changes, running a limited deal is pretty hard to do," said Labonte after posting 31st on the practice charts Friday. "It's harder than I thought it was going to be."
When the deal with Hendrick's 44 car was first announced, it was nothing but excitement coming out of the Labonte camp, as Texas Terry got what he wanted; the ability to step away from the sport slowly, while still being able to come back and run a few races in the twilight of his career. Showing up only a handful times each year, though, puts Labonte in a deep hole before he ever gets to the track, as the team finds itself at the end of the line for tech inspection due to his position at the bottom of the NASCAR owner's points standings.
"When you run a limited schedule, you get limited practice time," said Labonte. "We got 30 minutes on the track (today at Charlotte for practice). NASCAR, as fair as they try to make everything, they're not very fair. It's definitely geared against the guys that don't have any points."
So Labonte becomes part of a dying breed. Once a popular decision for older drivers to make, the struggles of running a limited schedule have threatened to make these types of part-time teams a thing of the past.
"I don't think that you can just bring a car out of the box anymore 4 or 5 times a year and be competitive," said Hendrick. "With the competition level as it is today and with new teams coming on next year and good cars that missed races like Daytona, I think it's going to be a real gamble to go out and sell sponsorship for six or ten races and make sure you're in the field."
"I think what we'll see in the future, and I think you've seen it with a lot of top drivers, Ricky Rudd and so forth, when it's time to quit they'll just end their career."
For now, the veteran Labonte trudges on, unsure of how the rest of 2006 will play out. Optimistic that he could still contend for a win in the right car, Labonte still campaigns hard despite the obstacles.
"At Darlington a couple of weeks ago, we were off when we got there, we didn't get Happy Hour because we lost an engine," said Labonte. "The first two thirds of the race we weren't very good. Finally, we got our car going good at the endâ€¦if we could have started the race like that, we would have had a very good run.
"That's what keeps you encouraged. I know we've got the potential. I know we've got great cars. It's just so hard to get all the little pieces put together."
Labonte knows that puzzle needs to come together soon, because time is quickly running out.
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