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Buckler, Lally And TRG Trying On The Blue Oval

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 9 2011

TRG team-owner Kevin Buckler is attempting to successfully make the jump from sports cars to NASCAR. He's turning to Roush Fenway and Ford in his efforts this year. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Fort Worth, Texas – Kevin Buckler’s ace lineup of sports car drivers has stood on podiums and sprayed champagne from Daytona Beach to Le Mans.

The Racer’s Group has been competing and winning at the top level of the sports car genre since 1993… and bottom-feeding in NASCAR ‘s Sprint Cup Series since 2009. It’s a dynamic Buckler is determined to change beginning this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Absolutely. Three years ago I made the decision to come here (NASCAR),” Buckler said Friday before the final Cup practice for the Samsung Mobile 500. “I moved to Charlotte, I got an apartment, I’m there as often as I can be and go to as many races as I can. I work with the business every day. From a commitment side, I don’t draw a salary from the company. I’m committed to make it succeed. We did this because we want to win. And winning is relative.”

Saturday night’s inaugural Cup race here will be TRG’s first as a Ford customer team, a switch from Chevrolet announced on March 25 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and physically set into motion after last Sunday’s event at Martinsville Speedway.

“It’s going to take some time,” said Buckler, moments before heading atop his team’s hauler to clock rookie Andy Lally’s progress in the No. 71 Interstate Moving Services Ford Fusion.  “We had to do nothing but thrash just to get here. We barely made the race because we switched over the cars, put the engines in, tried to mount sway bars and do things that were not completely familiar to us on this new Ford chassis. And do it in less than three days. So I think we’ll have a lot of opportunity for improvement. The Roush Fenway guys have been great to work with; they want us to succeed.”

TRG has entered into what Buckler described as a “long-term” agreement with Roush Fenway Racing

Andy Lally gets ready for practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

and Roush Yates Engines. TRG has been fielding Chevy Impalas in partnership with Richard Childress Racing and engines from Earnhardt Childress Racing. The decision to switch seven races into the season, Buckler said, is all about the “next phase of growth” at TRG.

“We looked at our own model,” said Buckler, whose initial foray into NASCAR was with Lally here in 2007 in the Camping World Truck Series. “We have a top-level professional sports car team that bring in pro drivers, bring in development drivers, bring in funded drivers, sell cars and service other people’s racing programs. We have a customer-based program that works pretty well.

“We need to be with an organization that also has a customer-based program because we come in as a new (team). With Porsche and Ferrari, I can go to the factory, buy a race car, come back and work on it and be competitive. Here, everyone builds their own cars and with a little team like ours, we’re not building cars – we’re buying cars. And so we’re buying older cars from teams that have cars to sell, so we have to find the best fit for us in terms of where can we get the furthest up the food chain in terms of newer equipment, the best technology and a good solid personal relationship.”

Buckler reiterated he enjoyed his relationship with General Motors stalwart RCR, adding that ECR’s engines “saved our bacon” many times.

“But Jack Roush has a really awesome customer-based program where you can purchase equipment and run reasonably competitive – and be serviced by an organization that is used to that sort of dynamic,” Buckler said. “And Doug Yates’ organization is across the street. Doug is an awesome guy, he walks over to see how things are fitting in the car. Everything is just a little easier for us and I think that we want to align ourselves to be in a position that if we do earn our stripes and move ourselves a little up the food chain that we will be in a position to receive better support, better technology. I want to know that opportunity is there, and I think it is here with this operation.”

A Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, Lally was among nine drivers who had to crack into the 43-car field via speed on the 1.5-mile quadoval. Lally responded by turning a lap at 183.780 mph that put him 39th on the grid for the 334-lapper. Lally went into qualifying with limited Cup experience at TMS, where he started 40th and finished 34th in the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 7, 2010.

“This is only the second time I’ve ever actually gone to a (Cup) race and seen the track before,”  said

Driver Andy Lally has come to NASCAR with owner Kevin Buckler. (Photo courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series)

Lally, a 36-year-old native of Northport, N.Y.  “This first weekend, obviously, it’s definitely a building weekend. For a big team to make a manufacturer change from one week to the next and literally have just a couple of days to turn it around is a huge undertaking. For a small team like TRG Motorsports, to try and do this was monumental.

“Paul Clapprood, my crew chief, led our guys until midnight just about every night before we left for here and had the guys back at the shop early again to try and take this on. So we are going to learn as much as we can this weekend and move onto Talladega.”

Lally said his limited experience in Cup told him the customer engine programs provided by various Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge teams is very equal.

“Where we’re looking for the most amount of improvement is we’ve been running older cars,” Lally said. “We’ve been running 2008 and 2009 chassis. This chassis is actually a late 2010 chassis and it’ll be the newest car we’ve actually had. As we get accustomed to this chassis and gradually build up our rapport with the Roush guys we look to improve on the handling side of what we’ve been doing.”

Statistically, Lally has been stuck in a five-race rut that has seen him qualify no higher than 37th and finish no better than 31st. He has failed to finish on the lead lap in any Cup race this season, the closest being a two-lap down result in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif., on March 27. Lally has led one lap this season, at Phoenix International Raceway on Feb. 27. He is 36th in driver’s points, 10 behind Tony Raines.

This is foreign territory for Lally, who began the season with a victory in the GT class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of TRG’s Porsche 911 GT3 Cup entries. How does that relate to a COT Chevy or Ford?

“It’s not so much a difficult-to-learn thing,” said Lally, a Rolex Grand-Am champion in 2001, 2004

TRG team-owner Kevin Buckler, second from left, and his Rolex Grand-Am team at Daytona for the 24-hour race. Buckler and Andy Lally, right, is hoping to also win at Daytona in a Sprint Cup car. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

and 2006. “I will say hands-down, racing in the Sprint Cup Series is the biggest challenge, I believe, any driver in the world can undertake. I mean, it is so competitive and these guys are so good. I don’t care if it’s Formula One or NHRA or IndyCar or the sports cars that I’ve been doing – this kind of racing at these kind of speeds as at-close as these guys race is incredible. It’s awesome. And it’s hands-down the most challenging aspect of any kind of auto racing.

“I had no delusions of grandeur coming into this sport that we were going to be anywhere near the top of the charts in our first year. You can’t come into what I think is the best series in the world and expect to compete at the front and not be fully-equipped and on a level playing field with the guys that are out there that are testing and developing the newest and latest/greatest stuff. We’re taking some older equipment and we’re trying to compare. And at the same time, when it comes time to drop the green flag we’re going to race our tails off.”

Buckler said he has no doubt that Lally, who will be making his 14th Cup start, will succeed in NASCAR’s top series. “I’ve been a racer for 20 years and one of the things we’ve had to be good at is being objective,” Buckler said. “Racing, like some other businesses I’m involved in, can be very emotional. You can make confusing decisions based on not always the most logical perspective. And that’s true with drivers. I’ve see Andy down – out of gas, out of water, at the end of a race over and over and over reach down deep inside and pull it out and win a big race.

“He is so clever in such a difficult situation – driving a sports car at 180 mph at night in the rain and avoiding trouble – like an angel. I mean, people don’t do that unless they’re super, super talented. Everybody in the sports car world will say they don’t want to see Andy Lally in their mirrors. And I hope that happens eventually here.  I think he can do it.  I think that Andy, in the equivalent of our world, is Jimmie Johnson _ that steady, that consistent, that good. And I’m willing to take a chance on him. It’s a big chance. Our total organization _we’re small, we’re scrappy and we need a driver like that too.”

Buckler’s team boasts Rolex Series GT championships in 2005 and 2006, and holds the record for most wins in Grand-Am with 32. TRG’s resume includes five championships, four victories in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona and a win in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans.

As noted earlier, Buckler said “winning” really is relative.

“Do I mean I want to come and win and be beating the 48 (Johnson) or the 18 (Kyle Busch) every weekend? Oh sure, down the long haul,” Buckler said. “But right now winning for us is meeting our goals, satisfying our sponsors, being competitive. I think the biggest goal for us right now – the win for me – would be there’s the big teams and there’s the single-car guys at the back. And for us to distance ourselves from that group and be that one little team in the middle that becomes the talked-about team because we’re new and we’re fresh and we’re a threat every week to do something.

“That would be a big win for us this year.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 9 2011
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