T. Labonte eight races shy of being racing's Ripken Nears Petty's record of 513 consecutive starts


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Terry Labonte has gone about his Winston Cup racing career as quietly as anyone can in a sport that thrives on the noise of racing engines.

Methodically, race day to race day, he has suited up, climbed into his car and roared off in pursuit of the ever-beckoning checkered flag.

When he won the Winston Cup championship in 1984 while driving for Billy Hagan, it wasn't because he was always the fastest or always the best on a single day. It was because he was persistent, consistent and resolute. He won the title with a single victory in a year when Darrell Waltrip won seven times.

So it is that Labonte, 39, arrives here for Sunday's Daytona 500 just seven races shy of Richard Petty's Winston Cup consecutive start record of 513.

Today, he will drive his Rick Hendrick-owned Kellogg's Chevrolet in one of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races here at Daytona International Speedway to determine his starting position in Sunday's race.

Barring the unexpected, he'll tie the record at North Wilkesboro, N.C., April 14, and set the new standard the following week at Martinsville, Va.

He grins when it is suggested that he is the Cal Ripken of Winston Cup racing.

"I got caught up in Ripken last summer," he says. "I thought it was so neat that he was able to hit a home run in the game he tied the record and hit another one in the game that set the record."

Does that mean he's planning back-to-back victories at North Wilkesboro and Martinsville to keep the analogy going?

"That would be great," Labonte says, liking the thought, "because I think the best thing about this record, the most exciting thing, is that I'm with the best team I've ever been with in my whole career. Every time I go on the racetrack I know I have a chance to win."

It makes getting up and going to work in the morning a whole lot easier. His career had hit a major-league low from 1990 through 1993. It was a four-season winless streak.

Then he joined the Hendrick team and won three races, the most he'd ever won in a season.

Then he did it again last year.

"I never regretted going back to the Hagan team," Labonte says. "They did the best they could do with what they had to work with. But it's exciting to be back in a car that can win races and be a contender for the championship.

"I'd love to win another championship. The second one would mean a lot more than the first one did. The sport has grown to be so much bigger, and when I won in 1984 I probably didn't realize how big it was.

"And at the time, I felt we could probably win it again the next year. . . . It would mean more to me today."

Who knew when Labonte climbed into his race car in Riverside, Calif., in January 1979 that it would begin a 17-year streak of not missing a day of work?

"It's not exactly the kind of record you look at in the record book and say, 'Hey, I want to break that one!' " Labonte says. "But I guess it is amazing in a way."

In a way. Stock car racing is filled with blown engines that could keep a driver from qualifying, and filled with crashes that could injure a driver and force him to the sidelines.

Labonte has never missed a race with injury.

"I'm glad it's my record Terry is breaking," said Petty, the seven-time champion who also is in danger of seeing his championship record eclipsed this season by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. "Terry's a low-key guy who does his job every weekend, then goes home and comes back the next weekend. To him, going to work is a natural part of life. I like that."

NOTE: Maryland driver Steve Barnes requalified his Chevrolet yesterday for Friday's USA 200 NASCAR Goody's Dash Series race, and will start 39th in the 40-car field. Maryland's Donnie Neuenberger will start his Ford 17th.

Daytona 500

When: Sunday, noon

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WXCY (103.7 FM)

Pole sitter: Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 189.510 mph.

Defending champion: Sterling Marlin

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