Labonte savors final Daytona 500 ride

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 05:57 PM

Terry Labonte wasn’t fretting last week over whether he would be placed on this year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot.

The two-time Cup champion, who lives in Davidson County and competed in Sunday’s Daytona 500, forgot that he was eligible since rules had been changed to allow consideration of those over 55 even if they have not been retired from driving for over three years. The change also allowed over-55 Bill Elliott, who raced two years ago, to be put on the ballot.
“They had that rule that you had to be retired for so long and I didn’t remember they had changed it,” Labonte, 57, said. “So it was a surprise when (Hall of Fame director) Winston Kelly called and gave me the news after the vote last Friday. And then (NASCAR president) Mike Helton came up and congratulated me in the garage area.
“So, it was a complete surprise because I hadn’t thought about it really. But to be nominated and to be considered in the same company with some of the guys who have been nominated and those who are in the Hall of Fame is really special. It is really cool.”
The weekend didn’t quite as well as Labonte had hoped when he was caught in a wreck in the closing laps of the 500, ruining a shot at a finish in the top 15. Instead, he limped the last couple of laps and finished 20th.
“It’s the best car I’ve driven for Frankie (Stoddard) down there over the last three or four years,” Labonte said. “But it didn’t have much speed outside of the draft. We were like 40th out of 49 cars. So I don’t think we could have led. But we managed to work our way up into the top 10 and then we had an infraction on pit road. That dropped me back to around 25th. So, I decided to stay at the back of the pack and not take a chance of getting into a wreck. Then, I decided maybe the group right in front of me wasn’t going to wreck, so I moved up and tried to pass some people. And then they had the wreck.
“It beat the car up pretty good. I hate that it was wrecked because it was a good car. But there weren’t many laps left, so we came in and pulled the fenders out and put tires on it. We stayed on the lead lap but the front end was messed up. I blew a tire on the final lap but did come around and finish.”
Labonte will drive for Stoddard again at Daytona in July and in the two races at the similar Talladega Superspeedway. He confirmed reports last week that this was his last Daytona 500.
“I told Frankie last year I wasn’t going to do it this year but they talked me into it,” Labonte said. “But this is definitely it. I won’t race in the Daytona 500 again.”

And while Labonte was making his last Speedweeks start, Ledford High graduate Harrison Rhodes, 20, made his first in Saturday’s Nationwide race.
He was disappointed it didn’t last longer after getting knocked out by engine failure within the first 10 laps.
”To drive on a track that is the most important and has so much history  was special,” said Rhodes, who now attends N.C. State. “We outqualiifed Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski, so I felt like I had a fast car. It was really neat to run in the draft in Daytona and get that experience for the first time. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to run the whole race and get that experience. But God makes things happen for a reason.”
Rhodes said he had no warning that his engine was going to go up in smoke.
“I was on the backstretch and the inside of  the car started filling up with smoke,” Rhodes said. “Coming off turn four, my spotter told me to get on the track apron because I was putting down oil. I did that but the oil got under my wheels and I spun on the frontstretch. At that point, I was just trying to not hit the wall and I managed to spin it into the infield.”

The area racing scene starts breaking out of its winter hibernation this weekend. Practice is scheduled Saturday at Caraway Speedway in advance of the track’s season opener on March 9.
The opening schedule includes a 150-lap NASCAR Southern Modified race, 100-lap Late Model Stock race, 30-lap Limited Late Model race, 20-lap Legends Car race and 15 laps each for the Mini-Stock, U-Car and Hornet divisions.