HOF On Right Track

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FORT WORTH, Tex. – Following last night's announcement of the 2006 driver lineup for the No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet, there was much celebrations by the newly established Hall of Fame Racing Team and its sponsor, Texas Instruments. The drivers were happy, the sponsors were happy, and even the media was happy after the big announcement was finally made.

But as the days, weeks and months dwindle to the 2006 Daytona 500, many of the same joyful media members in attendance will turn on the newly formed team.

They will criticize the decision to split driving duties.

They will denounce Joe Gibbs Racing for helping this upstart team.

And they will probably grow old of the two football stars, former Dallas Cowboys Stars Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, and call them "NASCAR wannabees."

When that time comes, do yourself a favor, don't believe a word out of those journalist's mouths.

Aikman and Staubach, along with their managing partner Bill Saunders, made the savviest decision after three years of planning for their new team. They decided that they were not going to beat the field in their first year on the track.

As the two time SuperBowl champion Staubach said during the driver announcement, "Our expectations are that we are going to be involved with really a class organization. We are going to be associated with Joe (Gibbs), but at the end of the day we have to be successful and we are going to be competitive. We are going to put a strong team on the field."

By starting the two-time NEXTEL Cup champion Terry Labonte in the first five races of next season, HOF Racing is putting the best team forward that they can, come February. Not only will having Labonte at the helm assure them entrance into the most prestigious race of the year, but it also gives them at least a fighting chance to earn a place in the very important top-35 list in owner points that will secure them a spot in races as long as they remain on the list.

However, many will grumble that by swapping drivers after five races, HOF is taking themselves and their primary driver, Tony Raines, out of the running for a championship.

With all due respect to Raines, anybody who thought that this team would be competing for a championship in their first year has no idea what NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing is all about. Disregard the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing is outfitting HOF Racing with engines and chassis next year, (they may have Tony Stewart in the chase, but JGR also has Bobby Labonte and the No. 11 Fed Ex Car debacle this season under their belts), Raines has had only one top-10 result in 54 starts in the NEXTEL Cup. Does that sound like a driver who can win a championship in his first season with a brand new team?

Now does that mean that Aikman, Staubach and Saunders made a bad choice? No. Despite having horrific statistics (Raines has 74 attempts, failing to qualify at 20 of them and has only eight top-20's, with 18 finishes of 35th or worse), the 1996 ASA champion has never been with a team of the caliber of Hall of Fame Racing. Add to that the knowledge he will get by studying Labonte at the first five races as well as the two road courses, and Raines will develop into a driver who can challenge for a spot in the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" as early as 2007.

Is there any doubt that when asked about his new ride, Raines was glowing as he proclaimed, "This is the best opportunity of my career. I kept pinching myself to make sure it was real to have owners like Bill, Roger and Troy, a crew chief like Philippe and a sponsor like DLP. It's what every driver dreams of."

Another argument that "wily old" journalists will spread about is that Labonte is tarnishing his legacy by using a rule that ensures past champions a spot into races in order to help the team earn a spot in the field.

I, however, ask, what's wrong with that? Labonte would not be the first driver to use the past champion's provisional to lock up a spot if he doesn't qualify on time (see Darrell Waltrip), and it is a rule which all of NASCAR knows. It would be the same thing as saying "It's unfair that there are multi-car teams." Everybody knows the rules, but only visionaries use it to their advantage.

Next year will start a new era for NASCAR. If the plan built by HOF Racing succeeds, many new teams may adopt it as they venture into the wild world which is NASCAR.

If you are excited about the new team and it's drivers, don't pay any attention to the naysayers next year. Just remember to write to them to brag as HOF succeeds and makes other established teams wonder how they can replicate their success.

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