There will be something missing at Kentucky Speedway. Something that has been in every race since the 1979 Daytona 500. Something that might not be noticed by every race fan that watches this race weekend. Something that NASCAR was built on.
Throughout the 1980's and 1990's NASCAR was known as "America's Fastest Growing Sport" and during those years the name Labonte was synonymous with the sport. Terry Labonte was a two time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, who was known for his cool demeanor and his consistency. Terry ran his first Cup race back in 1978, running for Billy Hagan. He would win his first race in the 1980 Southern 500 and would be a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1980's, winning a championship in 1984. Labonte would sputter a little in the beginning of the 1990's but when he signed with car owner Rick Hendrick prior to the 1994 season things began to turn for him.
He became a powerhouse once again, winning several races and the 1996 title. He would win his final race in the 2003 Southern 500, the 22nd of his career. He is third all time on the career starts list with 884 and is still active, running the Superspeedway races in Frank Stoddard's #32 Ford.
Throughout the years that Labonte has driven he has proven to be one thing. Classy. He was also one of the cleanest drivers in the sport, even when some other drivers didn't play by the same rules. In 1995 Labonte showed his class in a classic showdown with Dale Earnhardt at Bristol Motor Speedway. Labonte was fighting late with "The Intimidator." Earnhardt was on fresher tires and was chasing down Labonte. When Labonte got behind lap traffic, Earnhardt chopped his lead to a few car lengths. On the final lap, Earnhardt was right behind Labonte, and coming off turn four Labonte was spun by Earnhardt who tried to take the inside lane. Labonte's car was sent spinning into the outside wall. However, he crossed the line first and won the race driving a badly damaged car to victory lane.
While some drivers may have been angry about the outcome, Labonte smiled and laughed in victory lane. Even after his great race car was torn to pieces, he still handled the whole deal with professionalism. That's something he needed four years later when he and Earnhardt battled again at Bristol.
Late in the 1999 running of the Goody's 500 at Bristol, Earnhardt led, with Labonte having the faster car. Labonte chased down Earnhardt and would finally catch him with two laps to go. Labonte made a pass for lead coming to get the white flag off of turn four and would move up on the track in turn one when Earnhardt got into his rear bumper, sending him spinning into the outside wall. It was devastation for Labonte and his team, and this time Earnhardt was celebrating in victory lane and this time Labonte wouldn't act so nice about it. Right?
Wrong. Instead Labonte was very respectful about the whole situation. He didn't fight Earnhardt like some others may have nor did he kick and scream. He simply went about it the gentleman way and handled it the only way a Labonte knows how to handle things. With class. He handled it with so much class that one reporter congratulated Labonte a week later at just how well he handled the situation.
Terry's classiness on the track was not forgotten by fellow drivers. TNT reporter Wally Dallenbach said that Labonte was one of the smartest drivers' he had ever raced with, years after Labonte's prime. Not only that but there isn't a driver in the garage area who has ever said a bad thing about Terry Labonte. The same can be said for his younger brother Bobby Labonte, whose consecutive start streak will end this weekend at Kentucky Speedway after his team, JTG/Daugherty Racing, has replaced him with driver A.J. Allmendinger.
It will be the first race Bobby Labonte has missed since the 1992 Hooters 500, 704 races ago. While the streak was an impressive one, it's not as impressive as something Labonte did in June of 1993. That's when two young fans came up to Labonte at his merchandise hauler at Pocono Raceway. They were four years old and to them racecar drivers were bigger than life. They weren't sure how to handle meeting a driver. Every time they tried to meet a baseball player they would get shafted or they would be completely ignored. Would it be the same way meeting Bobby Labonte.
The conversation started casual, as the two twin boys were talking to him about being brothers and what it was like on the track racing with his brother. Labonte handled the two young boys with respect. He laughed and joked with them and then as they were leaving one of the boys said "See Ya Later Alligator," Labonte replied in a way that stuck with the boys for life, he said "You know what I say to my brother, In awhile crocodile."
It was a cool moment and the boys became racefans for life. Sixteen years later the boys would run into Labonte again, as Labonte was doing an appearance for Coca-Cola. Maybe after all this time his personality had changed. After all, he was a NASCAR cup champion, not a rookie anymore. Maybe they caught him on a good day back in 1993. Instead Labonte was grateful to the line of people who lined up to meet him and shake his hand. He smiled and said thank you to every single fan in the store that evening and made sure that everyone was satisfied. The typical Labonte way.
It's part of what made the sport so attractive to fans back in the 1990's. Drivers were accessible and they were nice. It made the fans feel part of the team and made the drivers feel like a part of their lives. It made you feel appreciated as if the fans were important and something that is missing from the modern day drivers.
Even though Labonte is being replaced by A.J. Allmendinger this weekend the fact still remains about Labonte. Class. There is no doubt he is frustrated with the situation, however, Labonte hasn't pitched a fit, nor has he come out publicly and killed the team for their move.
Nope, instead Labonte did what Labontes do. He handled it the classiest way possible. That's what made them so popular with the fans. Bobby Labonte won't be in the STP 400 on Sunday and the class he brings to racetrack every week will be missed by one of those two young boys he made fans for life at Pocono in 1993.
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