- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Terry Labonte had a rush of been-there-done-that as he watched the final laps of last weekend's Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway unfold from his couch in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"I was like, 'I've seen this before,'" the two-time champion recalled.
Yes, he had.
In fact, Labonte once had a front-row seat in a situation similar to the one developing between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the Nextel Cup series heads to Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC).
Flash back to 1996. Labonte won at Charlotte to pull within a point of then-Hendrick teammate Gordon with three races to go.
Now flash back to last week at Atlanta. Johnson won to pull within nine points of Gordon with three races to go. The biggest difference? (Other than that there wasn't a Chase format 11 years ago.) Gordon finished seventh, compared to 31st in 1996.
But the end result was eerily familiar to Labonte.
"Yes, it looks like the championship will come down to those two just like it did me and Jeff," he said.
Labonte doesn't have a gut instinct as to how this one will come out. All he knows is that the strategy for both drivers will be the same now as it was for him then.
"When you get in a situation like that, we just knew we had to try to outrun those guys every week," he said. "There wasn't really anybody else in the picture that close to us."
Labonte didn't look like he was in the picture with five races remaining. He was 111 points back -- the same as third-place Clint Bowyer is this season, only Bowyer has two fewer races to work with -- after Gordon collected his 10th win.
The only way he would get back into contention was if something bad happened to his teammate. A cracked cylinder head at Charlotte took care of that. The following week at Rockingham, Labonte surged to a 32-point lead with a third-place finish to Gordon's 12th.
The lead looked in jeopardy a week later at Phoenix, where Labonte broke his finger in practice and qualified 30th. But that was only a minor setback for the driver known as "Texas Terry," who finished third to Gordon's fifth to build a 47-point cushion.
With a cast around his left hand at the finale at Atlanta, Labonte cruised to a fifth-place finish -- two spots behind Gordon -- to become the first driver to win titles as many as 12 years apart.
"Jeff had won the year before, and we knew he was going to be the guy to beat," Labonte said. "It was just an exciting time for us to win the championship and really cool to see Hendrick Motorsports finish first and second. That was a big accomplishment."
The dynamics weren't quite as complicated as they are now. Labonte and Gordon didn't work under the same roof, while Gordon and Johnson do, at Hendrick's Concord, N.C., facility. Labonte and Gordon didn't openly share information, as has become essential to be among the elite.
"It definitely would have been different," Labonte said. "I never went down to their shop, and they never came to ours. It was more of three one-car teams."
Labonte and Gordon weren't nearly as close as Gordon and Johnson are, either. They didn't talk a lot or hang out socially, and there long has been the belief in NASCAR that there was a frosty relationship between the drivers and teams.
But Labonte said competing for a title didn't cause friction then any more than it has now between Gordon and Johnson.
"I remember being in a meeting with Ray Evernham," Labonte said of Gordon's former crew chief, now the minority owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "He raised his hand and said, 'Listen. We're all going to be fine. We're making a lot bigger deal out of this than we should.'"
If anybody was nervous, it was team owner Rick Hendrick, who remains the most nervous now, even though he has been through this.
"He didn't know what to expect," Labonte said. "We were just happy that Hendrick Motorsports was going to win a championship. Rick was more concerned with who was going to lose the championship than the one that won it."
It's the same way now.
"Rick's been around long enough, he realizes the guys that don't get it are the ones you have to worry about the most," Gordon said.
The Hendrick dominance that Labonte and Gordon displayed in 1996 was not much different than the current show. They each had 21 top-5s and 24 top-10s. Gordon had arguably the better season, with 10 wins to Labonte's two, but Labonte's overall consistency won the title.
"Back then, we were sort of outperforming Terry on the track, but we had some failures," Gordon said. "In this situation, it's hard to say. Jimmie has won the last two races. We won the two before that. He might be outperforming us just a little bit, but we've got the consistency like Terry did."
Under the pre-Chase format, Gordon would have a 439-point lead heading into Sunday's race, with the title all but sewn up. Just as he did in '96, he has had a better overall year, with 20 top-5s and 27 top-10s to Johnson's 18 top-5s and 21 top-10s.
Johnson's only edge is in wins, eight to six.
But if Johnson wins the title, Gordon will be one of the first to applaud him, just as he did Labonte.
"He came right over there and congratulated us," Labonte said. "Everybody there for the most part has always been a team player, or they didn't last long.
"Those guys that are there between Jeff and Jimmie, they're all real team players. It's gonna be fine whichever one of them wins, I'm sure."
That's the Hendrick way.
"If you're in a battle with him, you have to be the bigger person, a professional, and absolutely go congratulate him and tell them what a great battle it was," Gordon said.
The team dynamic showed in '96 when Labonte broke his finger. Gordon's team was the first to offer help, volunteering to shake down Labonte's backup car.
Both agree that it starts at the top.
"Rick is naturally a great leader, and there's a lot of great people at that organization, and people there respect each other a lot," said Labonte, who is enjoying his retirement in Texas and Charlotte. "Jeff and Jimmie definitely respect each other. They both want to win, and they both know they want to win.
"The guy that wins it will obviously be happier than the guy that finishes second, but overall, it'll be a great year to come out second, even though I know neither one of them want to do that."
Rick is naturally a great leader, and there's a lot of great people at that organization, and people there respect each other a lot. Jeff and Jimmie definitely respect each other. They both want to win, and they both know they want to win.
-- Terry Labonte
Labonte and Gordon never had an on- or off-track issue in '96. They never gave Hendrick a reason to give them a heart-to-heart talk, as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth recently got from Jack Roush after a heated argument at Martinsville.
They never even gave Hendrick reason to get on the radio and warn them not to wreck each other, as he's done on occasion with Gordon and Johnson.
"He knew Jeff and I were going to race each other clean," Labonte said. "His biggest concern was there might be friction between the two teams down toward the end."
Some might say Labonte and Gordon were downright boring, refusing to let the championship come between them and the organization. The same could be said of Gordon and Johnson.
"We were kind of focused on doing our deal, and they were focused on doing their deal," Labonte said. "It's just how it all played out. I'm sure it will be the same way between Jeff and Jimmie."
Labonte won't be at Texas Motor Speedway to continue this déjà vu experience. This weekend is the opening of deer hunting season in Texas, and he's more focused on getting a buck than a race.
But he will keep up with this oh-so-familiar battle, all the way to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It could go either way," Labonte said. "Both of them are strong. It could come down to the last lap of the last race."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
8dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz