Going back in time means taking the chance to re-watch races from a much different perspective than as a young individual.
I took the time to go back and watch the 2003 Mountain Dew Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway. This was a special race because it was the final time Terry Labonte got to victory lane during his amazing career.
Growing up as a Terry Labonte fan was interesting.
I never really got experience Terry’s best moments. His final title came in 1996 the year I was born. He had a few choice words following an incident at the Bristol night race in 1999 with a guy by the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr. I was only 2 at the time of the race. I didn’t get to remember it, but I’m glad there is video.
The one memory I do have of Terry’s career that is a bright spot was that day in August when ‘The Iceman,” as Labonte came to be known, went to victory lane for the 22nd and final time in his Hall of Fame career.
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The start of this race was highly entertaining. I’m in the radio business and the pre-race production is something I enjoy to watch.
I forgot how much NBC put into their pre-race production with Bill Weber on the ‘War Wagon’ and Wally Dallenbach taking laps to show you the line of the track.
It was the final race at Darlington on Labor Day weekend and you could feel the excitement during pre-race, even today.
Drivers had that tone, especially those who have been around the sport a longtime, where they felt the race needed to be. The race would eventually return to Darlington on Labor Day weekend.
Ryan Newman was the dominate car of the day. He was the Bud Pole award winner, something I wish today’s TV partners made as big of a deal as they did on the telecast back then.
Newman led 120 laps that day. It was his season and others were running for second. In fact, up to that point of the year, he had won five races and had just won his fourth pole of the year.
It didn’t take long for the racing action to ramp up. Newman jumped out to an early lead but that evaporated after a multi-car crash in turn three brought out the caution on lap seven of the event.
Christian Fittipaldi, driving for Richard Petty Enterprises received the worst part of the crash and his day was done after only nine laps.
After going back to green, the race pace was slowing down and drivers didn’t make many daring moves.
One guy who was on the march, thoug,h was Jeremy Mayfield. The driver of the Mountain Dew Dodge for Evernham Motorsports was fast all race long and really showed it.
Kenseth and Newman traded the lead five times before completing lap 100. Jeff Burton led a handful of laps, but early on, it was Newman and Kenseth going back and forth.
The middle of the race was pretty calm. Outside of a spin by Mike Skinner in the #01, the only other cautions to that point were for debris.
Kevin Harvick showed a strong had in the middle of the race leading 10 laps before giving it up to Jimmie Johnson. Yes, even in 2003, ole’ seven-time was running up front and winning races.
This just happened to be well before he even was a one-time champion. He was the leader until another multiple car crash gave it back to Newman.
This crash had some names in it too. Drivers involved included Jeff Gordon, Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader and Casey Mears. This crash happened near the midway point of the race at lap 167 and was the final big crash of the race.
Darlington is a tough track, but what makes it even more tough is the self-inflicted wounds.
Newman was leading and during a pit stop under caution, he stalled out the car and forced him to lose multiple spots on the track. In a day that saw him with the best car also saw him not get the finish he deserved.
Problems continued for the leaders. Greg Biffle had taken over the lead on lap 230. Biffle led for 70 laps a combined three different times.
While out front a puff of smoke came from the rear of the car. When the caution came out for debris on the track, Biffle found out he lost the clutch and the the car wouldn’t stay in gear.
This problem held him back from being able to lead another lap as the race was down to its final 100 laps.
After the Biffle incident, another rookie staked claim out front.
Jamie McMurray worked his way in the Havoline Dodge to the front and led for 21 laps. He was able to claim the lead after a great stop for his #42 team. Once taking the lead there were no challengers around.
In fact, the only thing that could stop McMurray from winning was a caution. On lap 334, Robbie Gordon cut a tire and made contact with the wall and brought out the caution one final time. This gave teams another chance to make a stop.
Terry Labonte was in the fifth spot coming into the pits. After a masterful stop by the Kellog’s No. 5 crew, Labonte took over the top spot and was the first time he had been at the front all day.
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Labonte may have not been the best car that day, but a great day of pit stops put him right where he needed to be at the end.
The race went back green with 30 laps to go and Labonte took care of that. The only challenge Labonte had was a hard charging Harvick. He still had quite a bit of ground to make up but Harvick was closing.
Labonte ticked off the laps and ended up holding off Harvick to win the Mountain Dew Southern 500. This was his 22nd career victory and would end up being the driver from Corpus Christi, Texas’ last win in NASCAR.
The win was special for Labonte because it came at the site of his first career win in 1980. To cap it off, it was also his first win in nearly four years.
Prior to winning in Darlington, Labonte’s last win came at Texas in 1999. Labonte was speechless in his victory lane interview with NBC sports.
When asked if he would win again, Labonte answered with his mustache covered grin, “I wasn’t sure but knew I could.”
This was and still is one of the most popular wins in NASCAR history. Simply for the fact that it was a special win for Labonte.
It was my only time remembering him win a race and being able to relive it was pretty special.
There’s new content on Texas Terry’s Final Hoorah, a 2001 race at Talladega, and even a 1968 Formula 1 Race. Texas Terry’s Final Hoorah.