As Big As All Texas

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FORT WORTH - Texas Motor Speedway isn’t just another track on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule for Terry and Bobby Labonte. It marks a homecoming for the two brothers born in Corpus Christi. It’s a place where they can revel in memories.

While each moved to North Carolina many years ago to chase his stock-car driving dreams, the annual visit to the picturesque 1.5-mile Fort Worth track for the Winston Cup Series is one that takes on special significance to 44-year-old Terry and 36-year-old Bobby.

It’s also special to the more than 200,000 fans that fill the Texas track, the majority of who are wearing Terry’s familiar Kellogg’s colors and Bobby’s Interstate Batteries paraphernalia.

“It’s fun going to Texas where Bobby and I are definitely the fan favorites,” Terry says. “It’s pretty exciting for us.”

Little brother agrees.

“We’ve got a great fan-following down there,” Bobby said. “You can tell by the ovation we get when we’re there. There aren’t a lot of guys from Texas as far as Winston Cup racing goes, so it’s a special deal because Terry and I feel like we’re Texans at heart, born and raised there.

“Even though we both live in North Carolina now, people in Texas still think of us the same way. They think we’re Texas boys and that makes it exciting for us. I’ve lived more than half my life in North Carolina, but I don’t care where I live now… I’ll always think it will be cool to have been born in Texas.”

The brothers have impressive records in the four previous races at Texas, with a worst finish of eighth for each (Terry in 1998 and Bobby in 2000). That puts the duo among the prerace favorites heading into Sunday’s Harrah’s 500.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to Texas because it’s one of my favorite tracks,” Terry said. “We’ve had some good runs out there, and I’m hoping we’ll have a shot at winning the race this Sunday. I really feel like we’re going to be in good shape.”

April of 1999 was perhaps the Labontes’ proudest moment at Texas Motor Speedway. Terry took the checkered flag in the 500-miler, and Bobby finished third. To Terry’s anguish, however, that was his last Winston Cup victory to date.

“That was the biggest race I’ve ever won,” Terry said. “To be able to go to Texas and win was something else because I could remember when we used to race at College Station (Texas) and we’d have 25,000 fans, at the most. Then the new facility was built and the sport has changed a whole lot, but the fans were looking forward to seeing us. Then to go out there and win in front of 220,000 fans was just incredible.

“Of all the races I’ve run, I’d never really noticed the fans and the crowd so much, but when I passed Dale Jarrett for the lead that day I could see the whole place stand up. It really got my attention. I was like, ‘Wow, look at this.’ It was pretty exciting to win that day in front of my home crowd.”

Terry’s most recent Winston Cup pole – last season - also came at Texas.

A return trip to the Longhorn state might be what’s needed for both the Labonte brothers, who have gotten off to a sluggish start through the first six races of the 2001 season. Bobby sits in 19th place, while Terry ranks 21st in the points race.

Last year at this time, Bobby came into the Texas weekend with the points lead. He was on his way to winning his first Winston Cup championship and joining Terry as the only siblings to have won a title at NASCAR’s top level.

Bobby isn’t getting down on himself or his team after only one-sixth of the season. He said he realizes there are 30 races remaining and Texas may just be the launching point he needs to get back in the title fight. He’d also love to win a race in his home state to join Terry with that honor.

“It’s been a bit disappointing to see where we’re at, but in all honesty, I haven’t really looked at the points since we left Daytona,” Bobby said. “We have so many races to go and so many things can happen, I try not to allow myself to get all wrapped up in that. We’re here to win each week and the points will take care of themselves.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that’s just the way it goes sometimes, and I don’t seem to be worried about it as much as I would have been two or three years ago. I guess it might be that I’m a little older and I understand it more. It might be frustrating, but you just have to look at the big picture and realize it happens to everybody. If it’s our turn, it’s our turn.

“It makes you appreciate the good times and it makes you want to work hard to get back to that level. It’s not that we’re not working hard, but sometimes when things go wrong, you kind of expect it and realize that maybe you’re not on top of things like you thought you were. It makes you want to work harder to get back up there.”

The importance level of this weekend’s race is not lost on Bobby’s crew chief, Jimmy Makar.

“Anytime you get the chance to go home, it means a lot,” Makar said. “So if Bobby can do well at home, that always makes it pretty special. It’s really neat Bobby gets the chance to go back to Texas to race and try to do his best in front of his home crowd.

“I don’t know that Bobby puts any extra pressure on himself, it’s more of a desire to do well. Obviously we try and run well everywhere we go, but when you get home it’s nice to do well in front of the family and friends. We look forward to Texas and we’ve seemed to run well there, plus Bobby gets around that track really well.”

Terry’s crew chief, Gary DeHart, is also well aware of the his driver’s desire to perform well in front of the Texas fans.

“The day Terry won at Texas meant everything in the world to him,” DeHart said. “Texas is where Terry is from and he’s very proud of it, and if I were him, I would be too. We’re looking forward to getting back to Texas. Terry really seems to like the track and how it’s configured, so we’re excited about getting back down there.”

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