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Terry Labonte closes curtain on NASCAR career

When NASCAR legend Terry Labonte takes the green flag at the start of the Geico 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Sunday, it’ll mark his 890th start at NASCAR’s top level, but even more significantly, it’s expected to be his final career NASCAR start.

Labonte is a two-time Cup champion, winning championships in 1984 and 1996, the first for car owner Billy Hagan and the second for Rick Hendrick. His career stats include 22 wins, 182 top-fives and 361 top-10 finishes.

Labonte began his NASCAR premier level career with his debut in the 1978 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. He went full-time Cup racing the following year, the same year as seven-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt. In 1980, a return to Darlington resulted in Labonte’s first-career Cup win.

Labonte last raced full-time in 2004, but he has made at least one start every year since. Since 2011, Labonte has raced a limited schedule for the Frank Stoddard-owned Go FAS Racing that was formerly named FAS Lane Racing. Sunday’s race will be his fourth start of the season, all coming in restrictor plate races at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

During a press conference on Saturday, Labonte pointed out that he’s competed in what was thought to be his last race before, but he insists that Sunday’s race at Talladega will really be it.

Here’s what he said at Talladega on Saturday as he reflected on his career:

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS WEEKEND AT TALLADEGA AND YOUR 890th START? DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD ACCOMPLISH ALL THAT? “No, after I came here the first time I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to come back a second time much less 61 times, but it’s been a lot of fun. Of course, you know it’s only about the third time I’ve said this is gonna be my last race, but this is really gonna be the last one. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed running a few races on and off here the past few years with Frank (Stoddard) and his team and C&J Energy as a sponsor. Those guys, C&J, are originally from Corpus Christi and headquartered in Houston now, so they’re guys I’ve known for a long time and it’s been fun to run a few races with them. I’ve always looked forward to coming to Talladega. We have a couple of wins down here and it’s a track, as everybody knows, if you stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap you’ve got an opportunity for a decent finish.”

YOU’VE LEFT A COUPLE TIMES BEFORE. WHAT DREW YOU BACK? “The first time I guess it was about halfway through the next year and Rick Hendrick called me and Michael and Darrell had asked him if he’d give me a call and see if I’d go run Michael’s car, so I ran a few races in that car and I thought, ‘It’s kind of fun just running a few races here and there,’ so I had an opportunity to drive for a few more teams. I drove for Richard Petty and Kyle Petty when he was doing his TV stuff and drove a few races for Joe Gibbs several years ago and then the Hall of Fame Racing team when they first started, which was really cool, so it’s been fun running those races like that and just being able to pick the ones you want.”

WHY HAVE TALLADEGA BE YOUR LAST RACE AND WHAT WERE THE OTHER TWO PLACES YOU THOUGHT WOULD BE YOUR LAST START? “Naturally, the deal I had with Frank and C&J was just to run the four superspeedway races, so this is the fourth one of the year and this was the last race we were gonna run anyway. The other time I said I had run my last race would have been in Texas about eight years, and then last year I told them this was gonna be my last race and then Frank and I got to talking so we decided to run one more year.”

WILL THERE BE SOME COMMEMORATIVE THING FOR YOU HERE? “It would be neat to have a neat picture of it afterwards. There are some pretty cool places in the infield out there. I’ve heard about some of them. I haven’t been out there, but I’ve heard about some of them. Seriously, it just so happened this was the last race that we had planned to run this year and I had already decided. At the beginning of the year I told them this would be the last year for real, but as far as anything special, no. It’s just what it is.”

WHAT EVENT HERE AT TALLADEGA STICKS OUT IN YOUR MIND AND WHAT WAS THE GREATEST WIN OF YOUR CAREER? “When you come to a track, and I didn’t realize I’d run here 61 times, but it’s hard to pick out. I think one that probably stands out was the last race we won down here. Randy Dorton was my crew chief for a few races that season and we won the race. Randy, as I’m sure most of you know was the head engine builder at Hendrick Motorsports for a long time and was really the guy that developed that whole deal and kind of got them on the track to where they’re at today. I told Randy after the race, ‘We had the best engine for sure,’ but that was one that really stood out. It was just kind of a special race for us and a special race for Randy, so it was one of those days that we just really ran well. And then another race I won down here I was driving for Junior Johnson. We came down here and I bet we didn’t run eight laps of practice. The car was just real fast and they said, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna practice anymore.’ We qualified it and qualified good and ran good and we won the race. There have always been some exciting races here at Talladega. The one I came close to winning several times before I actually first won one, and I think the one that stands out was the one that Ron Bouchard won. Darrell and I were racing for the win and I didn’t know what to do about Ron. He was behind me and he passed both of us. Darrell and I after we passed the start-finish line kind of looked at each other like, ‘Man, where did the guy come from?’ So there have always been some exciting races here at Talladega. It’s a fun place.”

IS THERE ONE RACE WIN THAT STANDS OUT? “I think probably one that was the coolest for me, probably two of them actually, but the one in Texas out there when I won the race in Texas. That’s the first time I think I ever noticed a crowd. I was passing Dale Jarrett. We had really run good all day and they beat us on a pit stop and I ran him down and passed him with less than 10 laps to go and I saw the whole place stand up. I had never noticed the crowd actually stand up at the track and I thought to myself, ‘Oh man, I better not screw this up because I think there are 200,000 people pulling for me and they’re gonna be mad if I don’t win this thing.’ So it was cool to win that race in my home state, and then probably the race at Darlington that we won when they had the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. We won the race that day and it’s between those two as being the coolest ones, I think.”

DO YOU NOTICE HOW MUCH THE SPORT HAS CHANGED OR IS IT AFTER YOU’VE SLOWED DOWN? WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGE? “It’s changed a lot. I think sometimes when you’re involved in it up close every week maybe you don’t see the changes as much because nothing was ever a big change, it was always gradual changes – whether it was new models, new cars, new safety features, new engine rules, spoiler packages, things like that. I’ve always thought, ‘Well, if you don’t like how it is right now just wait a while. They’re gonna change anyway.’ The technology change has been the biggest thing that has changed over the years. I remember years ago we used to make fun of teams that had engineers and now if you don’t have a team of engineers, that’s what it takes to be really competitive like some of these teams are. But they spend a tremendous amount of money doing R&D stuff and simulation things. They can basically simulate the shock package with some of the equipment they have, so it’s changed a lot. We didn’t use to have that – spend time at the wind tunnels. We never took a car to the wind tunnel until 1985 or something like that. We never even went and tested until about that time. We’d just unload and race. One thing that is different and has changed a lot is the pressure on the teams, the drivers and things like that. I think that’s because it costs so much more. That makes it difficult for new guys to come into the sport because years ago an owner could take a chance on somebody just because he was only spending $300,000-$400,000 a year to race. Naturally it kept creeping up but today with how much it costs it’s just makes it more difficult for a new guy to come in unless he’s bringing a sponsor with him or something like that. It’s definitely a lot tougher today to get into the sport than it was. Every year you look back and you think, ‘Man, this year was tougher than last year. The competition just always seems to get stronger and closer together.’ That’s one thing that has never changed. It’s always been that way. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, no doubt about it, and I think 95 percent of them have been for the good. It’s definitely different.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS CHASE FORMAT? “I don’t know. Typically, I don’t know how many times we finished in the top 10 in points over the years, but it was several times and normally you had to be real consistent to be in the championship. The way it is today, you still have to be consistent but if you win the races you naturally get to advance. I think it brings some excitement to it for sure and a lot more pressure also. It’s definitely kind of interesting to watch, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. It’s definitely different and puts a lot of teams under a lot of pressure. Now it really focuses on one race. If you get a flat tire in one event or get tangled up, it could pretty much eliminate you from moving to the next stage, so it’s definitely different.”

WOULD YOU WANT TO BE A PART OF IT? “Sure. I wouldn’t have a problem with it. The only thing I don’t secretly care about is I think they should take the last race and move it around to different tracks, kind of like the Super Bowl does. They want to be like football and they don’t play the Super Bowl in the same place every year, so I think it would be really cool because when you’ve got three or four guys that are really good at that track, and if I was never very good there, I would look forward to that last event going down there up against some of the guys that are so good there. That way if they moved it around to some different facilities it might be a little bit better for some of the competitors.”

WILL YOU STAY AROUND THE GARAGE? WHAT DOES YOUR FUTURE HOLD? “I’ll probably come to a few races, that’s for sure. Actually, I have a real job besides this one. We have a marketing company and have been in business for like 21 years, so we do a lot of things around the race track. We’ve got some people working for us here this weekend and typically we go to several events. Sometimes I go to the race tracks and don’t come in the garage area, but to just check on things that we’re doing. You’ll probably see me around every now and then, but not a whole lot.”

YOUR FIRST CUP START WAS AT DARLINGTON. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE FOR YOU? “The good thing about it for me to run my first race there is being from Texas I really wasn’t that familiar with Darlington. If I would have been, I probably wouldn’t have picked that one as my first race. But we went to Darlington and I never will forget doing down there. They had a rookie meeting and they showed a video that they played of all the things not to do. I was sitting there watching that thing and the guy that starred in that video was the guy that drove the car I was driving the year before. So everything he did wrong they pointed out in that video. So I sat there and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, the car is identical. It’s the same paint scheme, same number, everything.’ So I sat right there and thought, ‘The thing to do is not make next year’s video. Don’t make all the highlights of the things not to do.’ So they had a rookie test and we had to go run around the track and you missed qualifying the first day. You had to qualify the second day, so I qualified and the longest race I think I’d ever run was a 200-lapper around a half-mile track, so I started that race and I just ran and ran and thought, ‘My gosh these guys could wreck down here. Holy smoke.’ They tore up a bunch of cars and it was typical Darlington. It was wild. So I ran and the race lasted forever. That was the longest race I ever ran in my life, so we ran the race and I finally looked up to see how many laps were left. I was trying to figure out how many laps were left and finally the thing ended and I never thought to look at the scoreboard and I finished fourth. I’m going to the garage and Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison came over and congratulated me and I thought that was the coolest thing. So I ran that race and went to Richmond the next weekend and I think I finished seventh up there and I thought, ‘Man, I think I’m gonna like this.’ It never got any easier after those two races, but that was an interesting first start. Darlington is definitely still a tough one to go to.”

DID YOU KNOW BOBBY AND DONNIE BEFORE OR WAS THAT THE FIRST TIME? “No, I’d raced against them once in Mobile, Alabama, but I didn’t know them.”

SO THAT WAS A BIG DEAL FOR THEM TO COME UP TO YOU? “Oh yeah. It was a bigger deal for me than it was them, but I never will forget it. That was pretty cool.”

ANY IDEA WHERE THE RUMOR STARTED ABOUT YOU WANTING TO RUN FOR PUBLIC OFFICE? “I’m like 90 percent of the people in here I’m way too overqualified for that (laughter). I had no idea how that started or where it came from. We had people calling and I was like, ‘My gosh, I can’t do that.’ No.”

PEOPLE WANTED YOU TO RUN FOR PUBLIC OFFICE? “No. Surely they didn’t. I don’ t know how that rumor started, but it was funny because some of the people that were running called us to find out if I was gonna really run and my wife said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to.’ And she asked me, ‘You’re not thinking about that, are you?’ I said, ‘No. Absolutely not. There’s no way I could do that.’ But I have no idea. My brother and his son had a good time with it because they made me posters and things to put out in my yard, so we all got a laugh out of it.”

WHO ARE SOME OF THE DRIVERS YOU CONSIDERED YOUR BIGGEST RIVALS? “As far as when I started I didn’t have any rivals. There were all these guys I raced against that I looked up to as a kid and I just was thrilled to be able to actually race against guys like Richard Petty and Bobby and Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and these guys. It was just a real honor for me to be able to compete with these guys. I never looked at any of them as a rival. I never did, and still never really felt like I had any rivals at any point in my career. To me, it was really something special just to be able to race in NASCAR with some of the guys I really admired when I was growing up.”

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