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Terry Labonte’s “Texas Tough” Cup Championship Story

Terry Labonte’s path to his second NASCAR Cup Series championship was the epitome of being “Texas tough.” (Photo: © 1996, Nigel Kinrade NKP)

Terry Labonte was in his third full-time season with the rising Hendrick Motorsports operation in 1996. But as Ringo Starr once sang in 1971, “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues and you know It Don’t Come Easy.”

Certainly, the 39-year-old Labonte showcased his worth after enduring a four-year winless drought from 1990 to 1993. Once Labonte was behind the wheel of the unmistakable No. 5 Kelloggs’s Chevrolet in 1994, Rick Hendrick saw his new recruit proving himself as a valuable asset to his emerging three-car operation in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Placing seventh and sixth in the 1994 and 1995 Cup points standings, Labonte entered 1996 as a quiet but formidable contender. However, most eyes were on Jeff Gordon, the reigning Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champion, and Mark Martin, a driver seen as a Dan Marino-type competitor who chased after that elusive championship.

Truth be told, Labonte’s path toward his second championship started off in frustrating fashion.

Leading 44 laps in the season opening Daytona 500, overheating issues derailed Labonte late in the going, dropping him to a 24th place result. A week later, after earning the pole position, Rockingham was rough on the Corpus Christi, Texas native, relegated to a 34th place DNF due to an engine failure.

Ranked 30th heading into Richmond, Labonte earned another pole and sought for some kind of positive result. A quiet, respectable eighth place finish propelled him up to 16th in the points standings. Then, “Texas Terry” Labonte showcased his consistent ways with a runner-up at Atlanta, fifth at Darlington, second at Bristol and a dominant win at North Wilkesboro.

The dark days of Daytona and Rockingham were all but forgotten as Labonte worked his way up to third in the championship standings. Notably, Labonte broke Richard Petty’s consecutive start streak of 513 races, usurping “The King” as “The Iceman” became “The Ironman.”

Brake issues relegated Labonte to a 24th place result in Martinsville, dropping him to fifth in the points standings. That would be the lowest points standings position for the 18-year NASCAR Cup Series competitor for the rest of 1996.

Woke Up and You Wanted a New Start

All year long, Terry Labonte and Gary DeHart were on the same page in 1996. (Photo: © 1996, Nigel Kinrade NKP)

Beginning with the Winston Select 500 at Talladega, Labonte reeled off an impressive eight race streak in which he finished seventh or better. Along the way, Labonte took over the points lead following a sixth place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

By this juncture, Labonte was regarded as a serious championship threat along with Gordon, Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett. The quartet were NASCAR’s supreme contenders for the Cup for the remainder of the 1996 season.

Other than a 24th place finish at Talladega, mainly from a Lap 118, 13-car crash on the tri-oval that also collected Earnhardt in a grinding accident, along with overheating issues in the 1996 Southern 500 at Darlington that dropped him to 26th, Labonte was smooth and consistent, finishing fifth or better in five of the next seven races.

Maintaining a slender lead over Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Labonte had a tough day in the office at Dover as he tallied a 21st place finish while Gordon netted his eighth win of the year. Gordon took the points lead from Labonte, appearing as if he would score his second championship in a row.

As Gordon earned wins at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro, Labonte’s No. 5 team, led by crew chief Gary DeHart, never gave up, overcome clutch issues in Martinsville, Labonte rallied to a runner-up result before taking a quietly smooth top five finish at North Wilkesboro.

Trailing Gordon by 111 points, Labonte had to be smooth as could be if he wanted to have any chance at winning his second championship. Out of respect to Earnhardt and Jarrett, by this juncture, for the four races of 1996, it was a two-man race for the Cup championship.

Interestingly, it came down to Rick Hendrick’s two, newest faces of his Cup conglomeration. Gordon was only in his fifth Cup season overall while Labonte was in his third year with the Hendrick operation.

Ahead of the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gordon drove to a sparkling outside pole position while Labonte posted a time good enough to start 16th for the 334-lap race.

Despite the middling qualifying effort, it was evident that DeHart set up a car that could win the fall classic at the 1.5-mile quad-oval venue. Sure enough, that was in the offing for Labonte and his uniquely colored No. 5 Kelloggs’ Honey Crunch Corn Flakes Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Taking advantage of Gordon’s engine issues near the halfway point, Labonte led 129 laps to earn his second win of the year.

“I remember going to Charlotte there in the October race and we won the race and Jeff had some problems,” Labonte said. “We gained a ton of points on them that weekend.”

Undoubtedly, Labonte did more than gain a ton of points on Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet efforts led by crew chief Ray Evernham. They were only one point behind their worthy adversaries ahead of the 1996 AC-Delco 400 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina.

Once again, Gordon got off to a hot start in qualifying, earning a time good enough to start third while Labonte was mired in 19th place. Mechanical ailments would not derail Gordon’s efforts as they did in Charlotte.

On this occasion, Gordon’s car was just not handling to his liking at the 1.017-mile abrasive track, falling a lap behind. Meanwhile, Labonte was smooth, steady and fast, driving to a third place finish, besting Gordon by nine positions.

Those two races were enough for Gordon to relinquish his seemingly secure points lead over Labonte, as the latter held a 32-point advantage going into the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix Raceway.

Stay Where You Are, State What You Are

As John Mellencamp sang in 1982, when it came to Terry Labonte’s resiliency through his hand injury, racing at Phoenix and Atlanta “hurt so good.” (Photo: © 1996, Nigel Kinrade NKP)

The road to Atlanta led Labonte and Gordon to Phoenix Raceway, a 1-mile track situated in Avondale, Arizona. Leading up to the Dura Lube 500, Labonte wanted to take the best car to Phoenix, even if it was meant to be in his team’s museum.

“I told Gary DeHart, I said, ‘Man, we need that car back to go to Phoenix,'” Labonte said. “We took the car that we had won North Wilkesboro with, and we decided to take it to Phoenix out there. And it was a really fast car. And I won Wilkesboro with it. And Rick wanted to put it in his museum. So, they took the car to the museum.

“We got down to the race for the championship there. So, we went and got it out of the out of the museum that it went through and got it all ready and took it out there to Phoenix. And I came by the first lap, Gary gave me my lap time, and it was pretty fast. And I thought, ‘Man, I wasn’t even really trying. So, this next lap should be pretty good.”

Following that solid first lap, Labonte decided to drop the hammer like Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder. On the following lap, Labonte’s season changed with intense implications for the Cup and his health.

“Well, we had the accelerator hung and I hit the wall in practice like my first lap out or second lap out,” he recalled. “And I can remember coming by the first lap and what had happened.  I drove down to Turn 4, and I let off the gas and the throttle was hung, and I hit the wall and broke a bone in my hand.

“And so, I had to get the backup car and start at the back. And then I had to go to the infield care center there, and the guy numbed my hand (and) gave me some shots in my hand so that I didn’t have no basic… no feeling. So, I had no pain.”

Even if that meant qualifying 30th in the understudy car, Labonte, now driving his standard Kellogg’s Corn Flakes liveries, rocketed his way to the lead on Lap 196. By all means, he looked like he had a race winning mount versus Gordon, who started 19th and genuinely struggled all race long.

Although the box score showed Labonte finishing third to Gordon’s fifth place result, it was not even close. Morale and performance wise, Labonte had the upper hand and iron fist going into the season concluding NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 10, 1996.

Naturally, Gordon and Labonte tested their championship race candidate cars prior to the season finale at the 1.522-mile oval. Not surprisingly, Gordon was fast and showcased his potential to win his 11th race of the year.

Then again, Labonte had a good feeling about his chances, even if he was not flashy as his younger teammate. Resorting to the usual smooth, fast, long run pace that patented his 1996 season run, he needed a shot in his hand, much like at Phoenix, to be nearly in optimum shape for the championship duel in Hampton, Georgia.

“We had to do the same thing at Atlanta because I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it in Atlanta. I’ll be okay, you know?’ No, I made one lap in Atlanta. I couldn’t do it,” Labonte said. “So, I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to have another shot in my hand.’ So, we waited till Sunday morning to do that down in Atlanta.

“That was unfortunate at Phoenix to wreck in our best car and breaking my hand to being able to bounce back and finish third in that race which was… that was a real game changer for us, I think, because we were able to extend our lead just a little bit.”

You Climbed the Stairs So High, You Can’t Come Down from There

In the 1996 NAPA 500 at Atlanta, Terry Labonte would not back down from the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. (Photo: © 1996, Nigel Kinrade NKP)

Team orders were not a concern for Labonte and Gordon as they respectively qualified fifth and second for the 328-lap finale at Atlanta. Such a relaxed atmosphere may have been born from Gordon’s crew chief, Evernham, breaking the ice.

“I remember before we went to the last race, Rick had a team meeting with both teams,” Labonte said. “And Rick was worried about the team that was going to finish second because we were both locked in to finishing first and second. We didn’t know who was going to be first or who was going to be second.

“And I remember Ray Evernham spoke up and told Rick, ‘You know, I wouldn’t really worry about it.’ He said, ‘You’re the one more nervous about this than any of us are.’ It kind of eased everybody’s mind, I think.”

Maybe Evernham had a crystal ball because in the early moments of the NAPA 500, Gordon, as Bob Jenkins observed in the telecast, was “going backwards” as he slipped from second to eighth after eight laps.

Labonte, on the other hand, led the early stages at Atlanta as Gordon pitted to address his car’s vibration. The left rear tire of Gordon’s car was loose with the stud causing his chariot to vibrate, necessitating the unscheduled pit stop.

Falling two laps behind, Gordon waged an incredible comeback, rocketing past the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby, to regain his position on the lead lap. By Lap 108, Gordon led for the first time, appearing as if he had the winning ride over Labonte.

As seen time and time again in 1996, Gordon’s fast start was no match to Labonte’s “Texas Tough,” ice cool ways. Bobby Labonte’s pole winning ride showcased his winning ways by leading for 147 laps while Jarrett drove up to place second.

That sunny afternoon in Atlanta Motor Speedway still stands the test of time in terms of happy memories for the elder Labonte in terms of the race and his championship hopes.

The path from Daytona to Atlanta for Terry Labonte’s No. 5 team was rewarded with Hendrick Motorsports’s second NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Photo: © 1996, Nigel Kinrade

“We went on to Atlanta and we were able to wrap up the championship there,” Labonte said. “It was pretty cool because my brother won the race that day and I won the championship. So that was a great ending to that season for us.

“But it was close. It got down close, and we were able to beat them beat them out there at the end. And that was that was tough to do because they had a great year also.”

Considering the 12-year span between Labonte’s championships, when he won in 1984 as a young, 28-year-old racer, to the wiser, 39-year-old veteran, 1996 still stands out to the Texas native.

Sharing the spotlight with his younger brother, Bobby, Terry Labonte proved that it was not about how fast one went, but how one finished the job at hand – by being “Texas Terry” tough.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Terry and Kim Labonte and Bridget Holloman, Executive Secretary for the National Motorsports Press Association, for making this feature story possible. Also, special thanks to Nigel Kinrade for his kindness with this feature story as well.

Look for more stories like this in commemoration of Hendrick Motorsports’ 40th anniversary season in the NASCAR Cup Series! Thanks again, Terry!

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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