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It's Never Old for Labonte

Veteran driver, seeking his first victory at the Daytona 500, remembers his first trip around the track 25 years ago.

February 16, 2003|From Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Terry Labonte's first Daytona 500 ended with brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison fighting Cale Yarborough in Turn 3 -- a thrilling finish for a wide-eyed 22-year-old.

Twenty-five years later, the two-time Winston Cup champion has seen it all.

"That first race, the Allisons fighting Cale at the end, I thought to myself, 'Well, this is pretty cool,' " Labonte remembered. "I knew right then this was something I wanted to be a part of for a very long time because it made quite an impression on me."

Mission accomplished.

Labonte, who ran his first Daytona 500 in 1979, makes his 25th start in Sunday's season-opener. He's still searching for his first 500 victory, but it probably won't come this year -- he starts 41st and needed a provisional to make the field.

"This is the biggest race that we run, it would be unbelievable to win this race," Labonte said.

The best chance he figures he ever had was in 1996, when he led a race-high 44 laps. But in a stroke of unbelievable heartbreak, a plastic bag flew out of the grandstands and got stuck in the car's air cleaner. He finished 24th, four laps back.

"That was my most disappointing 500, it was easily the best car I ever had," he said. "It's a special race, one I figured out I wanted to be a part of pretty quickly. I never dreamed I'd be here all these years later. I guess I just kind of thought I'd be back in Texas after I'd tried this three of four times."

Instead, he has stuck around ever since, amassing 21 career victories, more than $29 million in prize money and his two championships.

But he hasn't been very competitive the past few years with only one top-five finish in 2001 and 2002. A proud former champion, it's hard for him to tolerate the struggles when he sees teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson win races.

He remains realistic in his goal setting, acknowledging the No. 5 Chevrolet has been in a rebuilding mode.

"A good year would be to get a win, get back in Victory Lane and get top 15 in points," Labonte said. "In today's racing, that's a good year. It's so close, there's just a tiny difference between fifth and 15th and we just need to get in a position to get close to it."

Labonte finished a career-worst 24th in the standings last season. It was the lowest point of a six-year slide that started after he won his second championship.

In the time his career has been on the downside, Gordon has won three championships and 42 races.

He's confident, though, that things are on their way back up. He and second-year crew chief Jim Long have identified bad race cars as their problem, and are hoping the new Chevrolet body style will put them back on track.

"Jim took a couple of my cars to the wind tunnel [last season], and he called me and said, 'I can't think of any place you'd want to race this car,' " Labonte said.

He tried four different chassis last season, and while a driver usually has a fleet of a half-dozen good cars, Labonte could count only two.

"The year I won the championship, '96, I know in the first nine races I raced eight different cars," Labonte said. "They could have took a car of mine and switched it when I went to the restroom, and I'd have never known it when I came back.

"We just lost that consistency and didn't really realize we'd lost it. We blamed it on everything from the hard tires to the new setups to this and that. We messed up."

The problems probably started in 1996, when he and Gordon battled for the title. They finished 1-2 in the standings, but the spirit of cooperation among teammates was never really there among the crew chiefs.

That atmosphere has changed now at Hendrick Motorsports, where Gordon and Johnson share one building and plans are under way to merge Labonte's team into the same shop as fourth teammate Joe Nemechek. They are currently separated in their own shops.

Already, things are clicking much better and everyone has noticed it.

"It's pretty amazing to see how well all the teams are working together now," Gordon said. "I've never seen [chemistry] as strong as it is here now."

Labonte doesn't say if he's thinking about calling it a career any time soon, only that he'd like to still be behind the wheel when his team finally picks up its program.

"It's a lot more fun on top," Labonte said. "Unfortunately it's hard to stay there.

"I've been down in the valleys, too, and you just fight your way out. That's what you've got to do."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Daytona 500

When: Today, 10 a.m., at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Fla.

TV: Ch. 11.

Track: 2.5-mile trioval.

Laps: 200.

Pole sitter: Jeff Green, Chevrolet.

Last year's winner: Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet.

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