He started racing quarter-midgets when he was 7 and won a national championship at nine, before moving onto the the local short tracks in a stock car as a teenager. Driving on both dirt and asphalt, he won track championships in his hometown, in Houston, and in San Antonio from 1975 to 1977. During this time he also met Louisiana businessman Billy Hagan. Hagan offered Labonte a job on his Winston Cup team along with the promise to drive five races that year.
Labonte’s first NASCAR race came in 1978 at Darlington Raceway, racing the #92 Duck Industries Chevrolet. He qualified nineteenth in the #92 Duck Industries Chevy and finished fourth that weekend. He ran four more races that season and had an additional two top-ten finishes. In 1979, he competed for NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year along with the late Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, and Joe Millikan, driving the #44 Stratagraph Chevrolet for Hagan Racing. In 1980, he had his first NASCAR win in the Southern 500. While Labonte failed to win the top rookie award, he was one of three rookies to finish in the top 10 in points. He ended the season with thirteen top-ten finishes. The following year, he won his first career Cup race on Labor Day weekend at Darlington. He won $222,501 and finished sixth in the final points. In 1984, he portrayed an unnamed pit crewman on the CBS series The Dukes of Hazzard.
Labonte failed to return to victory lane over the next two years, but did not finish outside the top-five in points. He won his second career race in 1983 in the Budweiser Chevy. In 1984, his team received sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines and he won at Riverside International Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway, clinching his first Winston Cup championship. He dropped to seventh in the final points in 1985. The same season, he own in his Busch Series debut at Charlotte in the #17 Pontiac for Darrell Waltrip.
After Labonte fell back to twelfth in the standings in 1986, he announced he was leaving Hagan to drive the #11 Budweiser Chevy for Junior Johnson & Associates. In his first season with the team, he won four poles and the Holly Farms 400, rising up to third in the standings, following that up with a fourth-place points finish in 1988. In 1989, the team switched to Ford Thunderbirds. Despite two wins during the season, he fell back to tenth in the championship, causing him to leave the team.
He made plans to field his own team in 1990, but promised investments fell through at the last minute.
He signed with the #1 Skoal Classic Oldsmobile team for Precision Products Racing. He had four top-fives but lost five spots in the points standings. He came back to Hagan to drive his #94 Sunoco Oldsmobile in 1991. While he failed to return to victory lane, he won his first pole since 1988 at Watkins Glen International. He began 1992 without a finish outside the top-8 in the first eight races. He had a total of four top-five finished and ended the season eighth in points. In 1993, the team switched to the 14 Kellogg's Chevrolet. For the first time in his career, Labonte failed to finish in the top-five and he dropped to eighteenth in points.
After Labonte left Hagan Racing in 1993, he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1994, where he started racing the #5 Kellogg's Chevrolet Lumina and responded by notching 3 wins in each of his first two years there. In 1995, the team switched to Chevrolet Monte Carlos. In 1996, he broke Richard Petty’s streak for consecutive races ended after winning at North Wilkesboro. Despite winning only two races, Labonte went on to win the championship that year as well, a record-setting twelve years after his first. Driving with a broken hand during the last two races of the season, Labonte's younger brother Bobby performed a dual victory lap in Atlanta Motor Speedway at the last race of the year. Bobby won the race and Terry the championship on the final day of the season, the only time a driver won the race at the same race his sibling won the championship. He also appeared in a Denny's restaurant commercial in 2000.
Labonte posted twenty top-ten finishes in 1997, but did not win until the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. In 1998, Labonte was able to win the Pontiac Excitement 400 but dropped to ninth in points. Despite a win at his hometrack at Texas Motor Speedway and The Winston in 1999, Labonte finished 12th in the championship points, the first time he had finished outside of the top-ten since 1993. The year 2000 saw Labonte's consecutive start break be broken after he suffered inner ear injuries at Pepsi 400, and was forced to miss the Brickyard 400 and the Global Crossing @ The Glen. He began 2001 with two top-six finishes in the first seven races but had his worst finish of his career at the time when he finished 23rd in the final points. He dropped back to 24th in 2002.
Final years Edit
In 2003, Labonte won his first pole since 2000 at Richmond, and his last win at Darlington Raceway after leading 33 laps. He finished tenth in the final points. He was unable to finish in the top-five in 2004, and after a 26th-place points finish, he announced 2004 would be his final season on the circuit, and would run part-time schedules for the next two year. He borrowed the #44 from Petty Enterprises and ran Hendrick's #44 research & development car with sponsorship from Kellogg's Pizza Hut, and GMAC. His best finish in the #44 came at Pocono Raceway, where he finished 12th. He also drove the #11 Fedex Chevy for Joe Gibbs Racing part-time following the release of Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing 9th at Richmond.
Labonte began the 2006 season driving the #96 Texas Instruments/DLP HDTV Chevrolet Monte Carlo car for Hall of Fame Racing, a new team started by former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Labonte's former-champion exemption guaranteed the team a starting spot in the first five races. Labonte's finishes in those races left the team in 30th place in points, sealing a spot for the team in each race as long as they stay in the top 35. Tony Raines took over the driving duties for the #96 car and is expected to run the rest of the races, with the exception of the road-course races at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International. His best finish thus far came at Infineon, where he finished 3rd. Labonte's last race was to be November 2006 at Texas Motor Speedway. However, Michael Waltrip hired him to drive his #55 NAPA Toyota for the road course races in 2007.
In 1998, the senior Labonte was named as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. A park was renamed for the Labonte brothers in their hometown of Corpus Christi in 2001, and they were chosen for entry into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. Labonte supports a variety of charities and due to his efforts, the Ronald McDonald House in Corpus Christi, the Victory Junction Gang Camp, and the Hendrick Marrow Program all have benefited. In 2016, he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Labonte has lived in the Thomasville, North Carolina, area for most of his career. Terry and Kim Labonte married in May 1978 during Terry’s first year with Billy Hagan after meeting at the car dealership where both worked while in high school in Texas. They have two children who have grown up around racing just as Labonte did years ago. Justin Labnonte, born in 1981, was a late model track champion at Caraway Speedway in North Carolina in 2003 and raced a limited Busch Series schedule in 2004 (including a win at Chicagoland Speedway in July) with sponsorship from the Coast Guard. That sponsorship expanded to allow a full schedule in 2005. Kristy, born in 1983, graduated with a business marketing major from High Point University.
In addition to his 22 wins in Cup, Labonte has won 11 races in Nationwide, and 1 in the Craftsman Truck Series. He has been the champion of the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring as well as three all-star races: the Busch Clash (now known as the Budweiser Shootout) in 1985 and The Winston (now the Sprint All-Star Challenge) in 1988 and 1999. He also won the IROC championship in 1989. Including his two championship seasons, he has finished in the top 10 in the year-end standings 17 times, and his top-five and top-ten totals approach 25 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of his total races.