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Lally Gets His Chance On Ovals

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 25 2010

Andy Lally is back in the No. 71 TRG car this week. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Acknowledging that his working relationship with former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte had “run its course,” team-owner Kevin Buckler has recruited road-racing ally Andy Lally to drive for The Racer’s Group at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend.

Lally aims to make his Sprint Cup Series oval debut in the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet Impala during Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon, N.H. Labonte announced Wednesday he was leaving Buckler’s second-year Cup team after racking up generally lackluster results in the first 16 races of the 2010 season.

Buckler turned to Lally, who made his Cup debut for TRG on the road-course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International last August with a 27th-place finish.

A native of Northport, N.Y., Lally is a sports car specialist who launched his NASCAR career in the Camping World Truck Series with TRG in 2007. Lally has won the Grand-Am Road Racing Association’s prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona twice (2001 and 2009) and is a three-time series champion (2001, 2004 and 2006). Lally currently is third in Rolex Series GT points on the strength of victories at Virginia International Raceway and Watkins Glen.

“Andy Lally is an important part of our company’s growth and has proven his value with us over the last five years,” Buckler said in a statement from the team’s NASCAR headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.  “We’ve won all of the big ones together, including the Rolex 24 Hour and multiple sports car championships.”

Founded in 1993, TRG’s Porsche sports car program is run out of the company’s headquarters in Petaluma, Calif. The team has posted the most wins of any in the Grand-Am Rolex Series with 28, including the 2005 and 2006 Rolex Series GT championships; three wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and a single victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.

“We’ve had the thought of putting Andy into the Sprint Cup Series on ovals since last year; well, here is that chance,” Buckler said. “I really believe in him and his talent.  He’s been very loyal to TRG on the sports car side and I am proud to give him a shot at that next level in his racing career.  We will give him all of the support we have this weekend and keep our expectations in-check.”

Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion with Joe Gibbs Racing, exited TRG after a 23rd-place finish in Sunday’s first road-race of the season, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. His best finish for TRG has been 21st at Daytona International Speedway in the season-opener in February and at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. Labonte has only led a single lap, at Pocono Raceway earlier this month, and stands 31st in driver points. He is working on a 232-race winless streak dating to the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2003.

“After Infineon we went through some soul-searching regarding the direction and goals of our team as we have yet to achieve what we have set out to do this year,” Buckler said. “Bobby is a NASCAR champion and a good guy. We figured out after Infineon, though, that our relationship had run its course and we both needed to mix-it-up a little.

“We may still have Bobby in our car for a few more races this season, but for now we are going in different directions.  We’re a young team in this sport and are trying very hard to attract a sponsor partner as we have a lot to offer on all of our programs.  We’re exploring our options for the Daytona weekend as we plan to race hard at the Coke Zero 400 (at DIS on July 3).”

Labonte, the winner of 21 Cup races during his career, is scheduled to drive the No. 7 Monster Energy Toyota Camry in place of owner/driver Robby Gordon this weekend. Additionally, Phoenix Racing and team-owner James Finch have hired Labonte to drive the No. 09 Miccousukee Resorts Chevrolet in a two-race deal beginning with the Coke Zero 400. He also is slated to drive the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 10.

Lally, meanwhile, is anxious to perform on an oval in NASCAR’s premier series. Pole qualifying on the relatively flat, 1.058-mile layout will be televised on Speed at 3 p.m., EDT.

“I’m going at this weekend with the most positive outlook that I can,” Lally said. “I’m getting a pretty neat opportunity to get some laps in on an oval in a Sprint Cup car on a track that I have never driven.  This will be my first time on an oval in a Sprint Cup car. Having just one, 90-minute practice session before we qualify to acclimate myself with how this car feels and drives with an oval setup on it, and 44 other guys on the track at the same time, will be pretty tricky.  It will be a monumental challenge to be productive.

“I‘m going to take it one lap at a time, respect every other driver’s space out there and do the best that I can. There are 45 drivers trying to make this race. The guy that would be ranked 44th in experience probably still has 100-times more oval laps than I do.  It means that I’m on a pretty steep learning curve, to say the least.”

Lally realizes he will need to take an entirely different approach on the New Hampshire oval than he did at The Glen.

“Before The Glen I had an entire test day in the car and was going to run a track that I was very familiar with and had won at several times before,” Lally said. “It was also a road-course situation, where my experience, I felt, gave me the edge on some of the competitors in the field.

“This weekend I’m going to learn. I will leave my ego in my sports car driver suit pocket and keep my head down, work with Dan (Stillman, crew chief) and the guys and try to get through the weekend logging maximum miles. I want to leave a good impression, so I can get invited back to do more in the future.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 25 2010