RICHMOND, Va. At 46, Terry Labonte answered as many questions last week about retirement as he did about winning the Southern 500 to break a four-year long losing streak.
Although he didn't say just how long he plans to keep driving on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit, he offered a clue: ''I'm not saying anything, but I'll tell you I won't have a losing streak that long again.''
Labonte, like the rest of the 40-something gang, knows his racing days are numbered. The sport now focuses on young drivers and young racetracks. The allegiance to tradition has been eroded by a generation of drivers who've been turning steering wheels since they were in diapers, and by electronic media that want everything packaged in short, clever, 60-second sound bites.
Labonte said he and Bill Elliott could best appreciate winning the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington S.C. The race had been a holiday tradition at Darlington since 1950 before either Labonte or Elliott was born and starting next year, the racing date is being shipped across country to the new California Speedway.
While the older of two racing brothers is working on an extension at Hendrick Motorsports, Labonte knows the end is a lot closer than he'd like to admit. The same goes for Elliott, who stubbornly admits retirement is an option.
''I am at an age that not many people go very much past,'' said Elliott, who will turn 48 in October. ''I do know I'm on the shorter end of the stick. Whether it's this year, next year or the year after, we've got to sit down with (car owner) Ray (Evernham) and make that decision.''
Elliott, who was 46 when he won last year's Brickyard 400, knows it's increasingly difficult to keep pace with the young guns. Of the 25 races this year, only two have been won by a driver older than 40 Dale Jarrett, 46, and Labonte.
Nineteen drivers entered in Saturday's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 (TNT, 7 p.m.) at Richmond International Speedway are at least 40. Nearly half the field is old enough to remember the black-and-white television and they know their chances of winning become more remote with each turn of the calendar.
The two biggest winners this year Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch are both in their 20s.
In NASCAR's 2,019-race history, only 15 have been won by drivers older than 47. Harry Gant won nine times after his 48th birthday, including a series-record win at 52 years. The only other drivers older than Elliott to win at least one race were Morgan Shepherd, Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt.
The 40-something boys insist they still have the emotional and physical ability to run stride-for-stride with the 20-year-olds on the circuit.
''Even though you think you still can and you're capable of winning, it all has to fall into places,'' Labonte said.
Many of those older drivers are struggling to find the fast lane. Ken Schrader, 48, has a losing streak that's 13 years old; Jimmy Spencer, 46, hasn't won in nine years old and 43-year-old Kyle Petty's futility streak is eight years old. Rusty Wallace, 47, hasn't won in more than two years, while Elliott, Sterling Marlin, 46, Mark Martin, 45, Ricky Rudd, 46, and Ward Burton, 41, have gone more than a year without winning.
Just a week ago, Elliott was sardonic about retirement. The Southern 500 seemed to change some of that.
''Well, let me tell you like it is: when I'm ready to talk (about retirement), I'll talk,'' Elliott said last week. ''When I ain't, I ain't. When it's time, it's time and I'll let you know.''
A couple days later, he admitted the obvious.
''As hard as the competition is today and the level of competition is today, I think that's going to be a factor,'' he said. ''We have to talk about not only what's best for me, but what's best for this race team.''
Labonte's victory has been like a healthy dose of Geritol to a bunch of drivers who are as tired of hearing about retirement as they are at not winning.
''That was for the old guys,'' Labonte said as Dale Jarrett congratulated him last week in Victory Lane. ''I'm not ready to think about the end just yet.''
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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