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Labonte clearly looking ahead

A mind-numbing wreck behind him, he is focused on Bristol today and a future Winston Cup title.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


Terry Labonte was a half-mile from victory last year at Bristol Motor Speedway when his world started spinning.

He hopes it finally has stopped.

One year ago, Dale Earnhardt won the Goody's 500 by bullying Labonte's car out of the lead on the final lap of NASCAR's most memorable race last season.

"I didn't mean to wreck him," Earnhardt said. "I just meant to rattle his cage a little bit."

Many of the 140,000 fans booed Earnhardt as he celebrated in victory lane.

Labonte, meanwhile, offered an understated warning.

"He'd better tighten his belts up," he said.

Heading into the goracing.com 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, last year's race again is a hot topic. Labonte still isn't saying much.

"Last year didn't turn out quite as good as I'd hoped it would be for me, but we had a great run and a good car," the two-time Winston Cup champion said. "I hope our car will be as good this year as it was then. If we can do that and be in position to win, that's what we're hoping for.

"And yes, I heard them (booing Dale Earnhardt) like everybody else."

Labonte's short-windedness is probably due to a couple of things, none more important than what he experienced 12 days ago while testing his son's Busch Grand National car at Bristol.

The 43-year-old made four laps around the steeply banked track, got dizzy and called off the remainder of that test along with his Winston Cup test later that day.

"When he ran at Bristol that day, I sensed that something pretty major was wrong," said Gary DeHart, the driver's Winston Cup crew chief. "Terry had a look on his face that he doesn't have very much."

Labonte's body had not been right since July1.

He lost control of his No. 5 Chevrolet just beyond the start/finish line on Lap82 of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway and hit driver-side first against the wall.

The impact didn't appear serious.

Hidden in all the tire smoke was an impact jarring enough to break Labonte's right shin bone, knock him unconscious for a few moments and give him a concussion.

Labonte started the series' next two races -- at New Hampshire and Pocono Raceway -- but on the first practice lap of the Brickyard 400 weekend this month, Labonte's eyes couldn't focus as he drove into the third turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He parked the car immediately and, two days later, sat out his first race in more than 21 years, including a NASCAR-record 655 in a row.

"It was really hard for him," said Andy Graves, Labonte's crew chief last season. "The streak he had going for consecutive starts was really important. In order to admit that he wasn't 100 percent, it took a pretty big man. That was something he had a lot of pride in."

Labonte also missed the next race at Watkins Glen International. One radio station in Charlotte broadcast a report saying Labonte was considering retirement, a thought that even passed through his crew chief's mind. But Labonte said it's not so.

"You're always concerned about your driver," DeHart said. "And Terry is more to us than a driver. We were worried and praying for him to get better.

"We were all getting very nervous and concerned. And yeah, I thought about it (Labonte retiring). I said, "Gosh darn, this just can't be happening like this. It could be something that's permanent and he'll never drive again.' We didn't talk about it, but the thought was always there."

When he got dizzy at the Bristol test, Labonte consulted another doctor and was diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.

"It was caused from the accident, from a blow to the head," Labonte said. "It's little calcium deposits in your skull and they kind of get knocked loose. They call them ear rocks. They get in your inner ear and cause a short-out every now and then and basically trigger the vertigo."

Five minutes of treatment left Labonte feeling fine.

To ensure everything was back to normal, he rode roller coasters at a Virginia theme park.

"I felt good and wanted to try to do something to simulate driving a car, going into the corner pulling some G-forces," Labonte said.

"I rode every roller coaster they had. ... I stood in line longer than I rode, but I probably rode nine or 10 rides, I guess. I went like a regular Joe."

Most important, there was no dizziness.

So Labonte went back to the track and ran the race Sunday at Michigan Speedway. He finished 20th after Todd Bodine qualified the car 33rd.

"I feel fine," he said. "I didn't have any kind of trouble at all."

Like his roller-coaster experiment, Labonte's season has been up and down with more downs than ups.

While Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd are all enjoying resurgences in competitiveness this season, Labonte has struggled, and not only with his health.

He is 20th in the standings with two top fives and five top 10s.

"Terry's definitely got the talent and the capabilities," Graves said. "He hasn't forgotten how to drive."

Labonte has won three races combined and slipped three positions in the points standings (sixth, ninth, 12th last year) in each of the past three seasons.

"Hopefully, we can come back and be a contender for another championship," he said. "That's my goal."

Now that he's feeling better, Labonte and his team plan to use the rest of the season to prepare for a possible run at a third championship next year.

"Terry has got it in him to win another championship or two," DeHart said. "He's younger than Earnhardt, and he's still got it there. The age thing is not a factor yet. He's good for a long time, probably six or eight more years if he wanted to run that long. The desire to win another championship is there."

Terry Labonte

HOMETOWN: Corpus Christi, Texas.

RESIDES: Thomasville, N.C.

BORN: Nov. 16, 1956.

WIFE: Kim.

CHILDREN: Justin (19), Kristen (17).

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Won Winston Cup championship in 1984 and '96. His first start was in the 1978 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Has won 21 races. His first was the 1980 Southern 500. Most recent victory was the 1999 Primestar 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Has won 25 pole positions.

THIS SEASON: Ranks 20th in the Winston Cup standings. Has top-five finishes at Bristol and Richmond. Sat out the Aug. 5 Brickyard 400, ending a record streak of 655 consecutive Winston Cup starts.

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