FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach are back on “home” turf – in an entirely different venue.
“I do believe that the Texas NASCAR fan is probably a Cowboys fan,” Aikman said Thursday. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that 96 is the car they’re rooting for.”
The Hall of Fame quarterbacks who combined to win the Dallas Cowboys’ five Super Bowl championships – Staubach two in the 1970s and Aikman three in the 1990s – are making their Texas debut as NASCAR owners this weekend.
Hall of Fame Racing’s entry, the No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet, is off to a respectable start in its inaugural season. At 29th in owners points, the team is guaranteed a spot in the Nextel Cup race closest to where the former quarterbacks starred on the field and the home of the primary sponsor.
Still, the team is a long way from being as popular as the ones with drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman – whose car numbers prevented Hall of Fame Racing from using either of the quarterback’s jersey numbers. So Nos. 8 and 12 were multiplied for 96.
Help from Labonte
Two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte drove the first five races, which Aikman said “worked out really, really well for us.”
Labonte’s past champion provision ensured that Hall of Fame got in every race. That included the season-opening Daytona 500 after NASCAR found an unapproved carburetor during qualifying, and two other races when the car didn’t qualify on speed.
Tony Raines took over as planned last week at Martinsville, where he qualified 12th and finished 21st running a conservative race on the short track.
“I know Tony was disappointed in himself and Philippe (Lopez, the crew chief) was disappointed in himself. To me, I like that,” Aikman said. “I walked away saying not bad, a top 25 finish, but the fact that those guys expected more of themselves, that’s encouraging.”
Raines will complete the schedule, except for two road races that Labonte will run.
Aikman and Staubach got into NASCAR with realistic expectations as a single-car startup team. They wanted to do things the right way.
Three years elapsed between the time they decided to put together a team and when they finally put a car on the track this season. In that time, they formed a partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing for engines, equipment and technical help, as well as a 40,000-square-foot shop in North Carolina, and found a Texas-based primary sponsor.
“I’m guarded about saying, well if we can be in the top 25 or the top 20 at the end of the season, we’d really be pleased, because we’d all like to win. That certainly is the objective,” Aikman said. “But for us being in our first year, that’s a realistic expectation. Next year, our goals would obviously enhance.”
Aikman was already at Texas Motor Speedway making rounds Thursday, the day before qualifying for the Samsung/RadioShack 500. Staubach was out of the country traveling on business, but is expected to be at the track for the race Sunday.
Raines, a journeyman who has never won a Nextel Cup or Busch race, said it’s a “good pressure.”
The 42-year-old Raines has only one top-10 finish in his 55 Nextel Cup starts, but was the Busch Series top rookie in 1999. He has won four NASCAR Craftsman Truck races, including 1997 in Texas.
After keeping the car in one piece and finishing at Martinsville, Raines knows it’s going to be a hectic weekend in Texas.
“To me, it’s like a ramp up. This is the high point,” Raines said. “Get past Texas and as a team and as a driver, we’ll be able to develop on racing and developing a team. … Just coming out of the gate, get through Texas in good shape and the rest, I think, would be a breeze.”
Labonte drove the No. 96 to three top-25 finishes. The best was 17th at Daytona, and he finished no worse than 34th.
“Texas Terry” also is racing this weekend, the first of 10 races he’ll run in the No. 44 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. The last will be at Texas in November to wrap up his Nextel Cup career.
“He’s really tried to help this team along. We talked a lot those first five races and I gained a lot of knowledge for him,” Raines said. “It might be a little harder to get some tips from him now that he’s driving the Hendrick car.”