LOOKING BACK: Another Labonte Finds Victory Lane

LOOKING BACK: Another Labonte
Justin Labonte celebrates in victory lane at Chicagoland Speedway. (NASCAR photo)

With the racing industry paused as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, SPEED SPORT has gone through the archives to find interesting stories from years past.

Today, we take a look back at the one and only victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series by Justin Labonte, the son of two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Terry Labonte.

JOLIET, Ill. — None of Terry Labonte’s victories could ever top this one, the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion said, after tearfully watching his son Justin take the checkered flag for the Tropicana Twister 300 on July 10, 2004 at Chicagoland Speedway.

It was an emotional victory for what is arguably the most popular family in the NASCAR garage today.

The younger Labonte, in just his 31st start, won for the first time in NASCAR’s Busch Series. His previous best finish was 14th in 1999.

Labonte’s No. 44 U.S. Coast Guard Dodge took the lead on the white-flag lap after race leader Mike Wallace ran out of gas.

“It was just awesome. I don’t know where to start,” said Terry Labonte of his son’s victory. “To me, personally, it’s bigger than any win I could ever have. It’s pretty special. It really is.”

Polesitter and defending race winner Bobby Hamilton Jr., who everyone believed would run away with the Tropicana Twister 300 unchallenged, left the race after just a few laps with engine troubles.

Later, several other strong competitors, including Kyle Busch, J.J. Yeley, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Michael Waltrip, each suffered engine, car or pit troubles.

But the last-lap fuel gamble of Wallace is what handed the 23-year-old Labonte the victory.

“I was really in a state of shock there when I came back around,” Justin Labonte said. “When he [Wallace] ran out of gas, I could not believe it.”

When he took the lead and then won the race, Labonte, unlike many young competitors today, chose not to celebrate with a burnout.

He opted instead for a dignified lap around the track with a checkered flag flying from the window, an obvious nod to his always-understated father.

Jason Keller scored second-place honors at the stripe. Jeff Burton finished third.

“Today, something good happened to some really good people,” Burton said. “[Justin] didn’t have the fastest car, but something really good happened to a really good family.”

“I saw Terry, and you couldn’t knock the smile off of [his] face in victory lane,” Keller added. “This is a great sport with a lot of good families in it, and this couldn’t have happened to a better family.”