'Iceman' quietly celebrates winning Southern 500

Tuesday, September 2nd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ There were no tears in Terry Labonte's eyes when he took the checkered flag on the Southern 500. The ``Iceman'' has always been able to control his emotions, even after a wildly popular, long overdue victory.

Labonte, a two-time Winston Cup champion in the twilight of his career, snapped his 156-race winless streak Sunday by winning the last true Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

He could have celebrated with a victory burnout like none ever seen before. Instead, he collected the checkered flag and drove a simple lap around the historic track before heading straight to Victory Lane.

``It had been so long since I won that I was just sitting there trying to think who I had to thank,'' Labonte said.

For those who know Labonte, that's about as exciting as it gets.

His younger brother, Bobby, the 2000 Winston Cup champion, knew the party would be tame by the time he got to Victory Lane to join in the celebration.

``He's the Iceman, real cool and calm and doesn't really get too excited about anything,'' Bobby said. ``He's pretty hard to read. Just yesterday I asked him how his car was and he said `Ehhh, it's OK.' Then he goes out and wins the race with it.''

The win could not have come at a better time for Labonte, who made his first career Winston Cup start at Darlington in 1978, then won his first race here two years later.

Now he's got another victory _ the 22nd of his career _ in the final Southern 500 run on Labor Day weekend. The event is moving to November next season.

He held off youngsters Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and rookie Jamie McMurray for the win and couldn't help but be a little bit pleased none of NASCAR's newbies got to celebrate the victory.

``I was running with Bill Elliott (late in the race) and thinking to myself, `I hope one of us wins it because we appreciate this place more than some of the young guys do,''' Labonte said.

Elliott ended up fifth and like most of the drivers, saluted Labonte for his milestone victory.

Even McMurray, who led late in the race until Labonte beat him out of the pits on the final stop, was pleased to see Labonte take the checkered flag.

``It would have been nice to win the last Southern 500, but I can't imagine a better guy than Terry Labonte to do that,'' McMurray said. ``That guy had some ups and downs and if it wasn't me, I'm glad that it was him.''

Labonte, whose last victory was in his native Texas in March 1999, ran among the leaders all day and finally went ahead for the first time on lap 335 when his crew changed four tires and filled his Chevy with gas in 13.11 seconds during a caution-period stop.

``That really started earlier in the race,'' crew chief Jim Long said. ``We were picking up about three spots on every stop.''

The final stop moved Labonte from third to first and it was no contest the rest of the way. He got a great restart when the green flag waved and steadily pulled away from Harvick to beat him to the finish line by almost 15 car-lengths.

``I think everybody is happy to see him win,'' Harvick said. ``If there's anybody that should win the last Southern 500 on Labor Day, it's somebody like Terry Labonte, who is a legend in our sport.''

Despite its historic significance, Sunday's race was hardly a classic.

There were 10 cautions, including two multicar crashes on the treacherous, misshapen oval.

But it was definitely a popular victory by the 47-year-old Labonte, whose championships came in 1985 and 1996 and whose career has been on the downside the last four years.

``We felt like we were just a lot better team than we were a year ago,'' Labonte said. ``We felt like we were close enough we could think about winning a race.''