By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
First, he was Texas Terry, the smooth, young driver from Corpus Christi with all the potential in the world.
Then he became the Ice Man, known for his cool demeanor and unflappable personality.
A little further down the NASCAR road, Labonte became the Iron Man, setting a record with 655 consecutive NASCAR starts, a mark later broken by Ricky Rudd.
In the end, though, the two-time series champion wants to be remembered simply as Terry Labonte, a guy who got to live his dream for nearly three decades.
“None of those names meant much to me,” said Labonte, who will make the 848th and final start of his 29-year Cup career Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. “I was just doing my job and enjoying myself.”
Labonte will be feted this week in Texas with a dinner, gifts, a special paint job on his car and a prerace ride around the 1.5-mile TMS oval, allowing the 200,000 fans expected Sunday to show their love and appreciation for his contributions to the sport.
All of it likely will be more embarrassing than thrilling to the quiet man. But it is only appropriate that Labonte, a member of the Texas Hall of Fame since 2001, will end his distinguished career in the Lone Star State.
And Labonte, who cut back to a limited schedule in 2005 to spend more time with his family and to enjoy the fruits of his long, successful career, said there are no second thoughts or regrets about calling it quits nine days before his 50th birthday.
“I still feel the same way about my decision,” he said in an interview last week. “I think my wife asks me about that every other week. But I still feel good about it and I’m still looking forward to going to Texas and running that race.
“Hopefully, we’re going to have a good run. That’s my biggest concern. But, as far as how I’ll feel after the race is over, I don’t really think I’ll feel any differently.”
Barring an upset win in Sunday’s Dickies 500, Labonte will finish his illustrious career with 22 victories, the last in 2003 in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the same track at which he made his Cup debut with a fourth-place finish in 1978.
Gary Dehart, a crew member on the Billy Hagan car that Labonte drove to his 1984 championship and crew chief when Labonte won his second title in 1996 with Hendrick Motorsports, said the driver always has had something special.
“I don’t think there’s anyone out there that drives a car like Terry,” Dehart said. “He’s very consistent and very smooth. If you were to ever go to a test and watch Terry make lap after lap after lap, you’d see how consistent and precise he is. I think that’s his biggest attribute.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick said his on-track ability is obvious, but notes it’s who Labonte is off the track that makes him special.
“He’ll always do what’s best for the team, even if it puts him in an awkward spot,” said Hendrick, who took a chance on Labonte in 1994, after the driver had struggled for several years. “I looked at his statistics early in his career and I couldn’t believe how well he’d run with the equipment he was in. He’s always been a team player and a great friend.
“Terry could’ve accomplished even more in his career had he been a little more selfish,” Hendrick added. “But there’s not a selfish bone in his body. He’s a great talent, but he’s just a great human being.”
Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, always has admired his older brother and will be the one who misses him most at the race track.
“One of the things I’m going to miss is not having him parked next to me in the motorcoach lot,” Bobby said. “We always park next to each and I’ve enjoyed that. It was a little different not having him around much the past two seasons, but now he won’t be there (at all).
“One of my first jobs in racing was working on my brother’s car at Hagan Enterprises. I learned a lot about the sport by watching him and I know that has helped me with my career. He always helped me when I needed it. It didn’t matter what it was.”
The elder Labonte said he has no doubts he still could be driving a full-time schedule, if that’s what he wanted to do.
“Oh, I could, yeah,” he said. “I think if you’re going to do it, you need to either get in or out. This limited deal, I really like it a lot, but it was a little harder than I thought it was going to be.
“I think we’d be a lot better if we ran every weekend just because I can’t really tell the guys on my team how to fix my car. I can tell them what it’s doing but, with these setups that we run today, I don’t have enough experience with them. I can’t come in and say do this and do that, where I used to do that. It’s just difficult that way.”
Asked if he might change his mind and drive at least a few Cup races in 2007, Terry Labonte shrugged and said, “I had someone come knock on my door in Charlotte (three weeks ago) wanting to know if I wanted to go to Atlanta (last weekend), and I said, ‘Nope.’ The guy says, ‘So I don’t need to talk money?’ I said, ‘Nope.’
“I just don’t really have no desire to do it. Maybe after I sit out for a while I might change my mind or start missing it or something but, as of right now, I sure am looking forward to life after the Texas race.”