Labonte brothers' bond at Indy strong as brick
July 24, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Bobby Labonte has enjoyed plenty of highlights during a career that has spanned nearly two-and-a-half decades.
Stick around long enough and you get to see things and go places. Labonte, 50, has seen and done his share.
There's the NASCAR Nationwide Series title in 1991 when he drove for his family-owed operation. Penrose Pickled Sausage sponsored his No. 44 Oldsmobile and as far as sponsors go, you just can’t beat that.
He won the Sprint Cup championship in 2000, earning four of his 21 career victories that season, out-pointing some guy named Dale Earnhardt by a whopping 265 points.
He was the first driver with championships in both the Cup and Nationwide series, and one of less than two dozen with at least one win in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Throw in an International Race of Champions (IROC) title for good measure. Labonte won that one in 2001.
In 1996, his lone win came in the season-ending race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His older brother Terry finished fifth to secure his second Sprint Cup title and after collecting all the hardware, both the Labonte boys enjoyed a celebratory ride around the track afterward.
Bobby Labonte will be attempting to make just his third start of the season this weekend when NASCAR returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday’s John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET).
If he makes the show -- 46 teams will be trying to grab one of the 43 available spots -- it will be his 21st consecutive Indy start.
In two previous appearances this year, Labonte has finished 15th and 26th. Both came at Daytona and were with different team owners. This weekend, he saddles up with Tommy Baldwin Racing in a third entry out of the TBR camp.
He's one of eight previous Brickyard winners entered, and while his victory came during his championship season in 2000, memories of that particular weekend remain fresh.
For the first time, the thrill of victory was wrapped around the heart-wrenching emotion of seeing his brother sidelined for the first time.
A two-time Sprint Cup champion, Terry had made 655 consecutive starts in the series dating back to 1979, his first full season in NASCAR. But lingering issues from hard crashes at Daytona and the following week in New Hampshire forced Labonte out of the car at Indianapolis.
"(He) thought he could get through it," Bobby Labonte said of his older brother. "I remember in practice sitting in the car. Gary DeHart (Terry's crew chief on the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) comes over to me and said, 'Your brother can’t drive.'
"We took off running to the trailer. Terry … he couldn't focus down the straightaway; he had … an inner ear problem."
The enormity of the situation hit the three men hard. "We all just sat there and … cried," Labonte said. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe this is happening. This is my brother. We race. That's all we do, right?"
Todd Bodine was hired to drive in relief of the elder Labonte, eventually finishing 15th.
Bobby Labonte came out on top after a tense late-race battle with Rusty Wallace, who had won just two weeks earlier at Pocono.
But even today, the excitement of his Brickyard win is still tempered by his brother's misfortune.
"After the race is over … I come down pit road (and) the first person to my car is my brother," Labonte said. "I'll get choked up if I talk too much about it. He came to my car. He wasn't driving. That's the first time I remember him not driving, you know what I mean?
"As great as it was on the race track side of it, when I got to pit road it was like, 'Oh wow, this is kind of hitting me differently.'
"I'll never forget that. I kind of want to forget that, but I'll never forget that moment. … (Him) sticking around was great, and the fact that he came over to pit road and was the first one to shake my hand … meant more to me than anything."