28 years ago, a future star of NASCAR took the green flag in his first Cup race. Driving a Billy Hagan Chevrolet, a 21-year-old Terry Labonte began a long and successful career as a stock car racer. As that career comes to an end this weekend in Texas, race fans everywhere should take the time to take a look back and appreciate the accomplishments of this quiet, unassuming man who is one of the top 50 drivers of all time in NASCAR Cup racing.
That very first race for Texas Terry took place at Darlington Raceway, a track that, near the end of his career, would put an exclamation point on his accomplishments. Labonte finished 356 laps that September day in 1978, and while he was 11 laps down to the winner, Cale Yarborough, he was fourth in the running order. Labonte competed in five races that first fall, and finished in the top 10 in three of them. So began his storied career.
1979 was Labonte’s first full season on the Cup circuit, and he finished the season with two top fives and 13 top 10s. He also finished in the top 10 in points for the first of an amazing 17 times in his career. His best finish that year was a third at Darlington in the Southern 500. Labonte unfortunately did not win rookie of the year due to the presence of another young upstart named Dale Earnhardt.
1980 saw Labonte score his first victory in his 59th career start and that victory fittingly took place in the Southern 500 at Darlington. In his first three years of competition at the Cup level, Terry had shown a tremendous ability to get around the treacherous South Carolina speedway. In 1982, Labonte became the youngest driver in NASCAR history up to that point to eclipse the $1,000,000 mark in earnings. He was the 12th driver in history to reach that milestone.
1984 saw Labonte capture his first Cup championship. Still driving the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet for Billy Hagan, Labonte won two races, scoring 17 top fives and 24 top 10s in 30 races. Labonte beat Harry Gant by 65 points that year.
1989 saw Labonte win the IROC championship. He won one race with three top fives and four top 10s. Labonte also drove Davey Allison‘s car to clinch his IROC championship in 1993 after his tragic passing that year.
1996 brought Labonte his second Cup title. 12 years after his first championship, Labonte holds the record for the longest span between titles in the sport’s history. Driving for Rick Hendrick, Labonte won two races but had an amazing 21 top-five finishes, and 24 top 10s out of 31 races that year. 1996 also saw Labonte break Richard Petty‘s streak of 513 consecutive starts. That streak would continue until 2000 when, recovering from injuries sustained in a wreck at Daytona, Terry missed the Brickyard 400 after 655 consecutive starts.
2003 saw Labonte collect his 22nd, and most likely final, Cup victory. In true Labonte fashion, the victory came at Darlington Speedway. In the final Southern 500 to be held on Labor Day weekend, Labonte led 33 laps and outlasted many drivers who were faster during the race but were caught up in mishaps when they didn’t show enough respect to the “Track Too Tough to Tame.” Unlike the other winners that season who were caught up in the craze of victory burnouts, Labonte calmly took the checkered flag from the starter and took a victory lap with the flag in hand, one final time showing the class and dignity that had marked his storied career. Labonte finished the year for the 17th time in the top 10 in points.
Labonte’s final full season was 2004 and he scored only six top-10 finishes and finished 26th in points. For 2005 and 2006, Labonte scaled back to part time status and ran 14 and 17 races respectively. He did score a top-five finish at Sonoma this year, where a pit strategy call near the end of the race almost resulted in a victory.
Terry and Bobby Labonte are the only brothers to win the Cup title. Bobby still counts his victory at Atlanta in 1996 on the day that his brother clinched his second title as his favorite victory.
Terry was given the nickname of Iceman by his fellow competitors because he was cool and calculated in and out of the car. He never pushed his equipment beyond its capabilities and he would pressure opponents into mistakes by simply staying on them lap after lap until they cracked under the pressure. He was always a gentleman in his interviews and very cordial to the fans. He is an example to anyone who aspires to be a Cup driver. We’re going to miss you, Terry. Enjoy your retirement.