One last Darlington trip for Labonte


DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) – With its tricky egg-shaped oval and tradition of rattling rookie drivers, Darlington Raceway is a peculiar place to make a NASCAR debut.

Even so, Terry Labonte chose the “Track Too Tough to Tame” to start his career way back in 1978. The 21-year-old Texan brought a car to Darlington, made the show and finished an impressive fourth.

“The coolest thing was after the race, Bobby and Donnie Allison came over and congratulated me,” Labonte remembered. “To have two guys, both stars in the sport, do that, I thought it was pretty neat.”

Labonte’s career comes full circle Saturday night when he makes his 54th and final start at Darlington. In the 28 years since he showed up there ready to launch a racing career, the track has been the site of many of his milestones.

He won the first race of his Cup career at Darlington on Sept. 1, 1980. And his 22nd and final victory came here on Aug. 31, 2003.

His first race was significant because few drivers choose the 1.366-mile track to make their debut. Located in the sandhills of South Carolina, Darlington has one of the most abrasive surfaces on the NASCAR circuit and drivers have a hard time adjusting to it.

Few newcomers can avoid slapping one of the walls, earning themselves the notorious “Darlington stripe.”

“It didn’t take me long to get mine – I think it was in qualifying,” said veteran Dale Jarrett, who made his Cup debut there in 1987.

Labonte wasn’t deterred, though. He showed up in the No. 92 Chevrolet, qualified 19th and finished fourth.

“The longest race I’d ever run in my life before that was probably a 200-lap race on a half-mile track,” Labonte said. “It was a big adjustment to run a 500-mile event. It was definitely a long race and a typical Darlington deal, tearing up a bunch of cars. It was a tough place back then, and still is.”

The top six finishers that day – Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Labonte, Bobby Allison and Bill Elliott – each went on to win at least one Cup championship.

Labonte mastered the track in 1980 when he piloted the No. 44 Chevrolet past runner-up David Pearson for his first career victory. Then, in what’s looking like a bookend to his career, he scored his last victory there three years ago in the last true Southern 500.

Darlington lost that Labor Day race date at the end of that season, ending a bit of history on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway. For Labonte, it was only fitting that a veteran took the checkered flag that final day.

“To me, that was always one of the biggest races we ran every year – it was a real tradition that I hated to see go away,” Labonte said. “Bill Elliott and I were running really good during that event and I thought to myself, Well, if we can’t win I hope Bill can.”‘

Labonte likely won’t win Saturday night. He’s running a partial schedule this season, his last planned year in any competition. It’s difficult for part-time teams to compete.

In a pre-race celebration, track officials plan to present Labonte with a souvenir program covering his most significant Darlington races.

“Darlington has always been one of my favorite tracks,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to going back and running down there one more time.”