Terry Labonte is nearing the end of his racing career and hinted Friday that this season could be his last.
Labonte, a two-time champion, is in his 26th full season in NASCAR's top series. He's on a year-to-year contract with car owner Rick Hendrick, and after finishing last season 10th in the standings with a victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, decided the end might be near.
"I told Rick last year that this year would probably be my last," the 47-year-old driver said Friday. "You have to sort of decide those things in advance in order to make plans and move ahead."
Labonte is struggling with the decision.
After consecutive seventh-place finishes in Dover and Pocono, he realized he was still having fun racing. But when he ran into Bill Elliott, who has partially retired and will make just his third start of the season in the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night, Labonte started thinking about retiring again.
"When I saw Bill and he said, 'I'm having so much fun, I'm having the time of my life,' I said 'Man, you are killing me,' " Labonte said.
So Labonte seemed unsure Friday about what the future holds. Should Hendrick decide he wants to hand the keys to the No. 5 Chevrolet to young Kyle Busch next season, Labonte said he could consider driving for another team.
"There's really only a handful of teams I'd consider driving for," he said. "And it would have to be a Chevy. But if there's an opportunity that I like, I would consider it."
Labonte is only certain of a few things. He knows that when he does retire, it will be for good and he is not likely to consider occasional NASCAR races or events in smaller series. And he has no interest in owning a team, even if it was with his son, Justin, as the driver.
"You couldn't pay me to own a team," he said. "If someone gave me a team, I'd give it back."
Richard Petty raced during a time when drivers rubbed fenders on the track and threw fists off it.
It was almost unheard of for a race to end without one driver being angry with another, and it spilled over to heated confrontations followed by pushing, shoving and sometimes punches.
So NASCAR's seven-time champion doesn't understand what all the fuss is about surrounding Tony Stewart's postrace altercation last week with Brian Vickers.
"NASCAR is never going to be able to turn this into tap dancing, if that's what they are trying to do," Petty said Friday. "This is racing. Emotions run high and they always will. Some things need to be left alone to be settled by the drivers."
Stewart was fined $50,000, docked championship points and placed on probation this week for reaching inside Vickers' car and striking the rookie. Many competitors were stunned when NASCAR didn't suspend Stewart for one race, giving him the same penalty Jimmy Spencer received last year for punching Kurt Busch.
But the Petty family has always firmly supported the hot-tempered Stewart, a major fundraiser for their Victory Junction camp that aids children with chronic illnesses.
Still, Petty would like to see the softer side of Stewart shine at the racetrack a little more often.
"He's two different people from the standpoint that he's given us a bunch of money for Victory Junction," Petty said. "Yet he goes around and does some childish stuff. I don't think he's grown up as far as really understanding how the public looks at him.
"He'll eventually learn to look at the bigger picture."
Mayfield Is Getting Better
As the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit reaches midseason, Jeremy Mayfield firmly believes his team deserves the Most Improved award.
Mayfield heads into the Pepsi 400 in 13th place in the standings with five top-five finishes this season. A year ago, he and his Evernham Motorsports team finished 19th with four top-fives.
"We really started making progress last season, but now we are really showing it," Mayfield said. "The good thing about is that we haven't even started going yet, we're just scratching the surface with a long way to go still."
After the first 16 races, Mayfield's average finish of 17th is more than seven spots ahead of what it was at this point last year. He also is 14 spots higher in the standings than he was heading into this race last year.
As teams prepare for the a mad scramble toward the final 10-race chase for the championship, car owner Ray Evernham is hopeful both Mayfield and rookie Kasey Kahne will be eligible.
Kahne is 484 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and Mayfield is 524 back. Both need to be within 400 points of the leader or in the top 10 in the standings to compete.
"I think a lot of people expected us to take a step back this year, and I think we have taken an overall step forward," Evernham said. "So if we can finish with at least one car in the top 10 and be involved in that shootout, then that's a good year for us."