Maturing Labonte steps back to move forward

Ah, well, former Winston Cup champions can't be right all the time.

Terry Labonte, who won the national title in 1984, thought he had taken a "realistic step" toward the future last season, when he started his own team. But as Winston Cup teams gear up for Sunday's (1:15 p.m.) Pontiac Excitement 400 in Richmond, Labonte admitted, "I've seen the light."


The 34-year-old native of Corpus Christi, Texas, is out of the car owner business and back in the seat of Billy Hagan's Sunoco Oldsmobile. It was with Hagan that Labonte won the 1984 title.

"I think we all appreciate each other a little more than the last time," Hagan said.


Certainly Labonte is happy to be back. Last Sunday, he finished 13th in the Daytona 500 and will try to improve his performance in Richmond. A year ago, he came home 32nd in a field of 36.

In his championship season he managed just two victories, but his consistent Top 5 (17) and Top 10 (24) finishes earned him the 1984 Cup. Since then, Labonte had managed only one victory a season, until 1989 when he won twice and last season, when he won none at all.

"I left Billy a long time ago, because I was young and dumb," Labonte said. "A lot of things have changed. I thought at the time it was better for my career to leave. Now it's better to be back together.

"I know a lot of teams think they can finish in the Top 5 and win a race or two, but I know it is something we can do and we're going to."