Terry Labonte to scale back his schedule

by Pete McCole

October 12, 2004

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Terry Labonte

Following in the footsteps of Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace, two-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Terry Labonte will end his storied career after the 2006 season, taking on a limited schedule with Hendrick Motorsports over the next two seasons.

Beginning Feb. 27 at California Speedway in 2005, Labonte’s 20-race limited schedule – 10 each of the two years – will be called “Shifting Gears – Lone Star Style”, a reference to Labonte’s Texas roots. The tour will conclude at Texas Motor Speedway in November of 2006. Labonte will drive the #44 Kellogg’s Chevrolet, the same number he campaigned during his first title season in 1984.

"This is something I've thought long and hard about," said Labonte, 47. "Though I still have the desire to compete, another 36-race grind isn't all that appealing. After more than two decades, this is the best of both worlds.

"It's exciting for me to extend my relationships with Kellogg's and Hendrick Motorsports -- two organizations that have helped define my career. These races are also an opportunity to show appreciation to all the loyal fans who have shown so much support over the years.

"And, of course, I've got my old number back. Hopefully, we'll be able to make some of that same magic the car brought us in 1984."

Labonte was joined by his car owner, Rick Hendrick; his parents Bob and Martha; and his brother Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Champion.

"I'm not sure my words can do justice to Terry Labonte," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "He's a true friend, a gentleman and a humble champion.

"Terry is one of the greatest talents I've ever seen and I'm proud to say he's driven for Hendrick Motorsports. It'll be great to have him back for two more years."

In 26 full seasons in Nextel Cup, Labonte has 22 victories and 27 poles with 811 career starts, putting him fourth all-time.

Labonte began his career with Billy Hagan in 1978 and went on to make a then-record 655 consecutive starts, earning the nickname “Ironman”. Labonte’s streak was broken by Ricky Rudd in 2002.

Since joining Hendrick in 1994, Labonte has posted 12 of his 22 career wins -- all with Kellogg's backing -- and bested teammate Jeff Gordon by 37 points to claim the 1996 Winston Cup (now NEXTEL Cup) title in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.

"This has been a winning combination for us, both on and off the track, since 1994," said Rob Grainger, director of account-specific marketing, Kellogg Company. "We're thrilled to continue our partnership with Hendrick Motorsports and honored to share these next two years with Terry Labonte, a true NASCAR legend."

Labonte, along with his brother Bobby, are the only brothers to win championships in NASCAR’s premiere division. Bobby recalled the day in 1996 at Atlanta where he won the race on the same day Terry won the championship, joining his brother for a family victory lap around Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“That was a monumental day”, said Bobby, holding back tears. “Our parents won twice that day. Their kids won both things that day. There in Victory Lane with Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Terry and I, Mom and Dad – I look at that picture quite a bit. It was unbelievable.”

NASCAR President Mike Helton was also on hand for Tuesday’s announcement. He had high praise for Labonte’s professionalism and attitude toward the sport.

“It’s obvious that NASCAR has a lot of characters in it,” said Helton, “but there are few such as Terry, that have defined the character of NASCAR through their way of handling things, their professionalism, their commitment to Motorsports, commitment to success and commitment to the things that make NASCAR what it is.”

19-year-old Kyle Busch was introduced as the new driver of the #5 Chevrolet beginning in 2005. Busch is currently second in points in his rookie season in the NASCAR Busch Series.

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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