Terry Labonte has announced that this weekend's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway will be his last outing as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It will be Labonte's 890th start in NASCAR's top-tier series and his 61st start at Talladega alone, tying the record for most career starts at the 2.66-mile track since his first appearance here in 1979. To Labonte, it seemed a fitting venue at which to bring down the curtain on 37 seasons of racing.
"After I came here the first time I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity to come back a second time much less 61 times, but it's been a lot of fun," said the 57-year-old, who won the Cup title in 1984 and 1996 and claimed 22 race wins along the way.
"To me, it was really something special just to be able to race in NASCAR with some of the guys I really admired when I was growing up," he continued. "There were all these guys I raced against that I looked up to as a kid and I just was thrilled to be able to actually race against guys like Richard Petty and Bobby and Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and these guys.
"When I started I didn't have any rivals," he added. "It was just a real honour for me to be able to compete with these guys. I never looked at any of them as a rival. I never did, and still never really felt like I had any rivals at any point in my career."
This is not in fact the first time that Labonte has retired from the sport. Previously he's been lured back into action in some capacity or other, but this time he's emphatic that this is the end of his racing career once and for all.
"The first time I guess it was about halfway through the next year and Rick Hendrick called me and Michael and Darrell [Waltrip] had asked him if he'd give me a call and see if I'd go run Michael's car, so I ran a few races in that car and I thought, 'It's kind of fun just running a few races here and there,' so I had an opportunity to drive for a few more teams," he explained of his earlier quick return to action.
"I drove for Richard Petty and Kyle Petty when he was doing his TV stuff and drove a few races for Joe Gibbs several years ago and then the Hall of Fame Racing team when they first started, which was really cool, so it's been fun running those races like that and just being able to pick the ones you want."
Of late he's limited himself to just four outings a year, taking a seat for each of the four restrictor plate races of the season at Daytona and Talladega, which is what determined that his final curtain call would be taken here this weekend.
"Of course, you know it's only about the third time I've said this is gonna be my last race, but this is really gonna be the last one," he insisted. "The deal I had with [Go FAS Racing owner] Frank [Stoddard] and [sponsors C&J Energy Services] was just to run the four superspeedway races, so this is the fourth one of the year and this was the last race we were gonna run anyway
"The other time I said I had run my last race would have been in Texas about eight years [ago], and then last year I told them this was gonna be my last race and then Frank and I got to talking so we decided to run one more year."
In any case, Talladega is one of Labonte's favourite places to come racing, and it made sense to finish his racing career here this weekend. "I've always looked forward to coming to Talladega. We have a couple of wins down here and it's a track, as everybody knows, if you stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap you've got an opportunity for a decent finish.
"When you come to a track, and I didn't realize I'd run here 61 times, but it's hard to pick [just one] out," he continued. "I think one that probably stands out was the last race we won down here. Randy Dorton was my crew chief for a few races that season and we won the race. Randy, as I'm sure most of you know was the head engine builder at Hendrick Motorsports for a long time and was really the guy that developed that whole deal and kind of got them on the track to where they're at today.
"I told Randy after the race, 'We had the best engine for sure,' but that was one that really stood out," he added. "It was just kind of a special race for us and a special race for Randy, so it was one of those days that we just really ran well.
"Then another race I won down here I was driving for Junior Johnson," Labonte continued. "We came down here and I bet we didn't run eight laps of practice. The car was just real fast and they said, 'Hey, we're not gonna practice anymore.' We qualified it and qualified good and ran good and we won the race.
"There have always been some exciting races here at Talladega," he said. "The one I came close to winning several times before I actually first won one, and I think the one that stands out was the one that Ron Bouchard won. Darrell and I were racing for the win and I didn't know what to do about Ron, he was behind me and he passed both of us. Darrell and I after we passed the start-finish line kind of looked at each other like, 'Man, where did the guy come from?' So there have always been some exciting races here at Talladega. It's a fun place."
Labonte said that he still expects to be around the NASCAR paddock, but now it will be to work for his marketing company SSG/Brandintense rather than climbing into the car. "I'll probably come to a few races, that's for sure. Actually, I have a real job besides this one!" he laughed. "We do a lot of things around the race track. We've got some people working for us here this weekend and typically we go to several events. Sometimes I go to the race tracks and don't come in the garage area, but to just check on things that we're doing. You'll probably see me around every now and then, but not a whole lot."
He quickly deflected rumours that he might be headed for a new career in public office back home in Corpus Christi, Texas. "I had no idea how that started or where it came from," he said. "It was funny because some of the people that were running called us to find out if I was gonna really run and my wife said, 'I don't think he's going to,' and she asked me 'You're not thinking about that, are you?' I said, 'No. Absolutely not. There's no way I could do that.' But I have no idea. My brother and his son had a good time with it because they made me posters and things to put out in my yard, so we all got a laugh out of it."
Labonte seems to have no regrets about walking away from racing this time. Even though he admitted he would like to be mixing it up with the Chase contenders for a third title, he added that it was a shame the championship was always decided at the same circuit every year, Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I think they should take the last race and move it around to different tracks, kind of like the Super Bowl does," he suggested. "They want to be like football and they don't play the Super Bowl in the same place every year, so I think it would be really cool because when you've got three or four guys that are really good at that track, and if I was never very good there, I would look forward to that last event going down there up against some of the guys that are so good there. That way if they moved it around to some different facilities it might be a little bit better for some of the competitors."
As for his feelings about the Chase format as a whole, he has mixed feelings.
"I don't know. Typically, I don't know how many times we finished in the top ten in points over the years, but it was several times and normally you had to be real consistent to be in the championship," he said. "The way it is today, you still have to be consistent but if you win the races you naturally get to advance. I think it brings some excitement to it for sure and a lot more pressure also.
"It's definitely kind of interesting to watch, but we'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out," he added. "It's definitely different and puts a lot of teams under a lot of pressure. Now it really focuses on one race. If you get a flat tyre in one event or get tangled up, it could pretty much eliminate you from moving to the next stage, so it's definitely different."
Labonte will have a front row seat to see how today's crucial stage of the Chase resolves itself. While 12 drivers are seeking progression to the next round, only eight will actually make it through which should mean that Talladega - always known as a wild and unpredictable event at the best of times - should be one helluva final race to be involved in before bowing out after 37 years in the sport.