Labonte Back in Gear for May Events at LMS
After 26 full seasons at NASCAR¿s top level, Labonte has throttled back as part of his Shifting Gears tour. The 48-year-old native of Corpus Christi, Texas, plans to run 10 races this season and 10 more next year before calling it a career.
Labonte has had to adjust to being at home on Sundays, but, so far at least, says he has felt no pangs of regret about his decision to put the week-to-week grind of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing in his rear-view mirror.
"Second guessing? Absolutely not," said Labonte, whose streak of 655 straight Cup starts was the sport's "Ironman" record when it ended in 2000. "I think I'd have had a hard time if I just walked out the door one day and that was it. I think that would be difficult. The way I am doing it, for me, has been perfect.
"Kim (his wife) said the retirement is wearing her out. We've gone and done a lot of stuff, but it has been relaxed and laid back."
Even when he's not running the No. 44 Kellogg¿s Chevrolet in NEXTEL Cup events, Labonte still goes to the track to help his son, Justin, with his efforts in the Busch Series. When he does come to race, however, he's still all business.
"I'm excited about the races we've picked," he said. "We've got a good team. I think we can have some success."
He's already had a lot, of course, in a career that began in Billy Hagan's cars for five races in 1978 and a full season the following year.
Labonte scored his first career victory in the 1980 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He was 3½ months shy of his 24th birthday at the time, which ranks him eighth on the sport's all-time list of youngest Cup race winners.
His 22nd victory came in the same race, the Southern 500, in 2003 in the No. 5 Kellogg¿s Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports. He was 2½ months shy of his 47th birthday at that point, making him the ninth oldest driver to win a Cup event.
In between, Labonte won two championships and collected more than $38 million in career earnings.
"When I won the first championship (in 1984) I had just turned 28 that weekend we won it in Riverside, Calif.," Labonte said. "It was a huge deal, but I didn't really realize how big and how significant it was. As the years went by and I didn't win another one, it really meant a lot more to win the one in 1996.
"The sport had changed so much and grown so much. I appreciated it more because I realized even more by then how hard it was to win the one in 1984."
Labonte left Hagan's team after the 1986 season and raced three years for Junior Johnson. After a year with Richard Jackson's team in 1990, he returned for three more years with Hagan before joining Hendrick Motorsports in 1994.
"I was always fortunate," Labonte said. "Billy Hagan had sponsored me for a couple of years in short-track stuff. He'd been in the sport and knew it was tough and we had some pretty good success early on.
"The only pressure I ever felt was what I put on myself. I was lucky enough to be with good teams that were able to stay in the business. I can remember some guys coming and going, guys who were here just a little bit and then they were gone.
"I have only actually driven for four teams. There probably were times when I should have said, 'I am going to go do something else.' But I have always been pretty loyal to the people I've worked for and they've been the same way to me."
When he was making the move to join car owner Rick Hendrick's team, Labonte said there were plenty of people who advised against joining a multi-car team at a time before they dominated NASCAR's top series the way they do now.
"But I felt like even if I got the third car there it would be better than the car I had then," Labonte said. "I knew it was a good team and that it could work. My brother (Bobby) and I had our Busch teams together in one shop with both guys working on the cars. It was on a smaller scale but it worked OK.
"The success we've had at Hendrick has come from a lot of hard work from a lot of people. Rick is very dedicated to making the team a success."
Labonte has contributed 12 victories to that record of success, but he admits there has been at least one thing that has been a bit disconcerting about his partial schedule this year.
"When I look at the points standings," Labonte admitted, "I still start at the top and look for my name. But since I haven't run in that many races, it's down at the bottom. That has been hard to get over."
As his career slows, Labonte looks back and marvels at some of the growth he's seen in the sport that he's been such a big part of. And when it comes to Charlotte Motor Speedway where he won the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge in 1988 and 1999 and the UAW-GM Quality 500 in 1996, he confesses to just one regret.
"I'll never forget when they built the condominiums here, a friend of mine and I were going to buy one," Labonte said. "We got right down to the last minute and he said, 'You know, I don't know if this is a good idea.' I said, 'I don't either. I think if we get a condo, we should get one at the beach.'
"We should have got one here."
Good seats are still available for the May 21 NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge and the May 29 Coca-Cola 600 and can be obtained online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-455-FANS.