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NASCAR binding family ties

Racing has become a family business as five sets of brothers compete in today's Pennzoil 400.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


HOMESTEAD -- The brothers never argued and never fought.

But 14-year-old Bobby Labonte did have some reservations when his family moved from Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1978 to North Carolina with the advancement of his older brother's racing career in mind.

"The only reason we moved was to go racing," he said. "When you're 14 years old, it's not like you could say, "I'm going to stay here in Texas.' We packed up and moved like the Clampetts and went to North Carolina. ... Of course we didn't have the money they had."

Bobby, now 36, and Terry Labonte have gone on to accumulate fame and wealth as NASCAR drivers.

"Obviously, now you can say that it was a good choice," Bobby Labonte said.

Their family story is like many in the Winston Cup garage where five sets of brothers will compete in the Pennzoil 400 today at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bobby Labonte has a 218-point lead over his closest competitor, Dale Earnhardt, and with a solid finish can clinch the Winston Cup championship like Terry Labonte did in 1984 and 1996.

Doing so would mark the first time in NASCAR's 51-year history that siblings have each won titles.

"I've always been a big supporter of his," said Terry Labonte, who is seven years older than his brother. "I really am proud of him. He's done a good job.

"Four or five years ago somebody asked me if I'd ever wanted my own Winston Cup team. Four or five years ago I said, "Yeah, if I can get Bobby to drive for me.' I knew he was awfully good."

Michael Waltrip, whose brother Darrell has won 84 races and three championships, is excited about the possibility.

"They're going to accomplish something at this point that is pretty unique," he said. "They're going to have a place in the history of this sport, a significant place in the history of it. I know what it's like for me when my brother won, the feeling I got. So I know it must be really special for them."

There was never any doubt Bobby Labonte would become a driver.

While his brother excelled in Winston Cup in the early 1980s, Bobby Labonte put his career on hold and worked for Terry's team, first in a janitorlike role sweeping floors, then as a fabricator.

He raced when he could, then moved to the Busch series where he won the championship in 1991. Two years later Bill Davis hired him to drive in Winston Cup.

Bobby Labonte has won 16 races since and will win the championship today if he finishes fifth, sixth with one lap lead, seventh and the most laps led or leaves with a 186-point lead in the standings.

"When you see those guys out there that have been past champions, I think to be a part of that crowd -- not everybody is going to be able to be there, but everybody wants to be," said Bobby Labonte, who has 17 top-five finishes this season. "Your chances are pretty slim of getting there, but I think if you do get there that is the most exciting part about it. "That's what it's all about -- just the chance of being part of a crowd that is a very limited few over the many that try to do it. It's very prestigious."

Bobby Labonte made inroads by being around the sport.

It has happened the same way for others with family ties: Geoffrey and Brett Bodine, Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Ward and Jeff Burton, Rusty and Kenny Wallace.

Combined with the Labontes, the 10 brothers in today's race have 210 career wins and six championships.

"I think it's in the genes," Rusty Wallace said. "It's kind of like a family business. If your pop owns a grocery story, you're probably going to work there and pass it on down through the generations."

Jeff Burton, six years younger than his brother, has another explanation why there are so many siblings in the business.

"In motorsports, it's such a financially driven sport that there's no way to go try out," he said. "There's no way to get that opportunity. When you have a family member people know you, people are aware of you.

"If your brother is good, they say, "Well, heck, he could be good.' I think that families help open the doors. I know twice as many people as I would know because I don't have to know them. Ward knows them."

Jeff Burton has 13 more victories than Ward, but refuses to compare statistics.

"It's cool when we both do something well," he said. "So when Bobby wins this championship it is going to be really, really neat.

"That's not the same as saying, "I led 9,000 laps and you've only led 1,000.' It's different. They're comparing themselves for a good thing and I think that's really special."

Dale Jarrett doesn't have a brother in the sport, but can relate to Bobby Labonte as the son of two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett.

By winning the championship last year, the Jarretts joined Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-and-son duos to win titles.

"There's a lot of good people involved in this sport, always have been," Jarrett said. "I've seen how good it has been to my family. That's basically the reason that I wanted to be involved.

"I think there's a lot expected from you whenever you have those family ties. My dad was a two-time champion so everybody expected me to jump in and go at it. I think that I worked hard at proving that I could do this. When you have a family member who's been in the sport, it makes you want to have success a little more."

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