HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Iceman melted.
Terry Labonte slowly unbuckled his seat belt after clinching his second Winston Cup championship -- his first in 12 years -- then brushed a tear from his cheek.
"All my dreams have come true," said Labonte, his voice cracking. "This championship, it's a little different from the first one. I never thought it would take me 12 years to win a second championship. I won it, and I thought, 'That's pretty neat. I'll probably do it again next year.'
"I didn't think next year was never going to get here."
The Winston Cup series bills itself as family entertainment, and yesterday the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was certainly that.
With his mom, dad, wife and two children watching, Labonte clinched the title by 47 points over his Rick Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, and Labonte's younger brother, Bobby, won the race for car owner Joe Gibbs.
Then the two Labonte boys staged a side-by-side victory lap to celebrate the occasion before heading to victory lane.
"I'll cherish that moment together forever and I know Terry will too," said Bobby, who as a 20-year-old worked on Terry's 1984 championship team catching the overflow from the gas tank. "Goldang, this is so cool, Terry winning the championship, me winning the race. This is the coolest thing I've ever done in my life."
Measure it against the second coolest thing the Labonte brothers ever did in their lives:
"That would be shooting up Dad's truck," said Terry, red-faced. "It wasn't that long ago. I hated that truck. It always broke down when I borrowed it and Bobby hated it because it had broke down on him. This one day, Dad was having the truck towed to the junkyard and I told Bobby we ought to do something to that truck. Let's shoot it.
"I got my .44 Magnum and we shot the truck. Mom came home and we had one bullet left and we asked her if she wanted to take a shot at it, but she didn't. So we shot it again. It took six shots, but we finally got it."
Being Texans, the Labonte brothers obviously like everything bigger and better. With the championship comes a $1.5 million payoff for Terry, bringing his season on-track earnings to $3,439,213. That total will increase when sponsor bonuses are added in later this week.
As for Bobby, he earned $274,900 for his lone victory of the season. His payoff included a $136,000 Unical bonus for winning the race from the pole.
With the championship on the line, the race lived up to everything the 140,000 fans could have hoped for.
Gordon went two laps down 14 laps into the race because of a tire vibration that forced him into an early pit stop. After that, the defending champion raced brilliantly, making up those two laps and actually taking the lead by lap 175.
Dale Jarrett, who was 99 points behind at the start of the race with an outside chance at the title, hung around the top 10 all afternoon and then put on a late charge. He climbed from eighth to second and was within .41 seconds of catching Bobby Labonte for the victory when the laps ran out.
Adding to the ruckus was Dale Earnhardt, who injected some adrenalin into both drivers and fans. Fourth in points and with no shot at the title, Earnhardt did have a chance to become the only driver in history to win three straight races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On lap 270, he went high on Bobby Labonte to take third and pulled up on second-place Ward Burton's bumper at the start-finish line. Going into Turn 1, Earnhardt pressed so hard that Burton simply jerked his car high to get out of Earnhardt's way. At that point, the seven-time champion set his sights on then-leader Gordon and bullied his way to the lead out of Turn 2 on lap 171.
"He [Earnhardt] is real brave on new tires, but it won't last long," Gordon radioed his pit. And, indeed, the tires went away and Earnhardt had to settle for a fourth-place finish in the race and in the points.
"That's the hardest I've ever drove here," said Earnhardt. "But it wasn't the kind of day I wanted to have. Congratulations to Terry. That's a damn good deal. I was glad to see Texas Terry win it."
Through it all, Terry and Bobby kept charging. With 42 laps to go, Bobby made it three-abreast in Turn 4, with Gordon and Chad Little to his outside. He came out the leader and was never headed again.
Terry, meanwhile, was fighting the pain of his broken left hand over the last 100 laps and trying to figure out a way to make his fuel supply last. Crew chief Gary DeHart had radioed there was some doubt as to whether he had enough fuel to finish.
In the pits, Terry's father, Bob, looked sad, thinking, "It's going to be a heck of a way to lose a championship."
Meanwhile, car owner Rick Hendrick was asking his wife "for enough headache medicine to kill a normal man in a normal situation."
But in the car, Terry Labonte, the man who had lived through the longest championship drought between a first and second title in Winston Cup history, was cool as ice, bringing the car home fifth and clinching the title.
"I got pretty emotional before I got out of the car," said NASCAR's newest two-time champion, who turns 40 on Saturday. "That's the first time I've ever gotten emotional like that. I couldn't believe it. I was a little surprised at myself. But it was something I've really worked hard for for a long time and it really meant a lot for me to win it."
NOTES: Driver Loy Allen Jr. had to be cut out of his race car after a crash on lap 196, but evidently escaped serious injury. After being air-lifted to Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta, tests showed no broken bones or head injuries, but he was kept overnight for observation. ARCA driver Mickey Hudspeth, who was injured during a Saturday race here, had his left hand amputated after doctors tried unsuccessfully for two hours to re-attach it. Doctors discovered that ARCA driver John Gill, who was taken to the hospital with a broken arm, also has two broken bones in his neck. The neck injury is not believed to be serious. A protective collar has been placed around Gill's neck.
The top 10 finishers in the Winston Cup points race: Place, driver Points 1. Terry Labonte 4,657 2. Jeff Gordon 4,620 3. Dale Jarrett 4,568 4. Dale Earnhardt 4,327 5. Mark Martin 4,278 6. Ricky Rudd 3,845 7. Randy Wallace 3,717 8. Sterling Marlin 3,682 9. Bobby Hamilton 3,639 10. Ernie Irvan 3,632
Pub Date: 11/11/96