Work in Sports
Decline of Iceman
Terry Labonte mired in three-year slump
By Ryan Smithson, CNNSI.com
The name "Terry Labonte" is still a revered one in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. The tough Texan has enjoyed a brilliant career -- one that includes two Winston Cup championships and a consecutive-race streak of 655 races.
But the Hendrick Motorsports driver has really steered off the leaderboard in the last two years -- especially in 2000.
Labonte's famed consecutive-race streak of 655 races came to an end at The Brickyard, and he also missed Watkins Glen. He missed the events after suffering serious injuries at Daytona in July.
The 43-year-old -- nicknamed "The Iceman" -- was struggling before the injury, with just two top-5 finishes and five top-10s in 21 races.
But, let's be fair to Labonte. It's unlikely the 1984 and 1996 Winston Cup champion suddenly forgot how to drive, because he hasn't.
The better explanation: Labonte's cars are simply inferior to everyone else's, comparatively speaking, of course.
The main red flag has been Labonte's qualifying efforts. The team is simply too slow every Friday. Labonte has just two top-10 qualifying efforts this season - one was a pole position at the Texas event. Labonte had to use a provisional to make the field at last weekend's Southern 500 - that marked the fifth time he had started 36th or worse this year. At one point, Labonte started 37th three weeks in a row.
As a direct result, Labonte has found it difficult to find the form that saw him notch eight victories and 41 top-10 finishes in his first three years driving for Rick Hendrick (1994-1996).
Labonte's last win came at Texas in 1999. Since then, he has scored just seven top-10 finishes in the 50 races he has competed in since then.
In NASCAR, change within a team usually means change. Gary DeHart was crew chief for Labonte in their title-winning year of 1996, but the two had split up by 1998. DeHart returned to the team this year, but Labonte has failed to recapture the form 1996.
Labonte signed a three-year extension in July 1999 to remain in the No. 5 Hendricks Chevrolet through 2003. After he was injured in this year's Pepsi 400 at Daytona, rumors abounded that Labonte would retire -- rumors that Labonte insisted were untrue.
Terry Labonte's baseball counterpart -- Cal Ripken -- faced intense criticism for his consecutive games streak after several subpar years. Ripken rebounded to hit a career-high .340 at the age of 39.
Do not be surprised if Labonte enjoys a similar renaissance in 2001. He has done it before -- Labonte was considered washed up after going winless from 1990-1993.