- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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FORTH WORTH Texas -- As rough as his rookie season in Cup racing was last season, Larry Foyt's sophomore campaign has been even more trying -- and it has very little to do with on-track performance.
As is the case with several fellow drivers, including Jeff Burton, Kirk Shelmerdine, Morgan Shepherd, Foyt is a victim of lack of sponsorship. His racing in 2004 has gone as far as what his legendary father's wallet can afford, coupled with what minor funding the team can pull together from a variety of sources.
Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 400 at Texas Motor Speedway was only the third race for Foyt this season. He started 41st and finished 28th in the season-opening Daytona 500. He came back the following week to start 38th and finish 32nd at Rockingham, N.C.
He was ready to try and qualify last week at Bristol, but that effort was stopped cold when his team's short track car failed to meet pre-qualifying inspection, leaving Foyt and the team no other choice but to pack up and head back to their base in Houston.
But this weekend is special in more ways than one. Foyt qualified 35th, the event is in his home state, and he's hoping a strong finish will help bring more sponsorship so that he can compete in several more races this season.
"When we decided we didn't have the funding to run a full season, I got to talking with my dad and I said, 'If there's anywhere I want to run, I want to run at Texas, so let's go test there and try and go have a real good race there,'" said Foyt, who finished 30th on Sunday.
Helping pay the bills for this particular weekend is a plethora of associate sponsors, mainly Fort Worth area businesses.
"It's tough right now because if you don't have the big money, it's hard to be competitive week in and week out. In NASCAR, the prices have just risen so much, especially in the last five years," Foyt said. "I just think that with today's economy, there's only so many companies that are willing to take that step. A lot of them do it real well and it works well for them, but it's just tough and takes so long to convince companies to spend that kind of money on race cars."
Even though he grew up in Houston, Foyt is no stranger to Fort Worth, having lived there for five years while pursuing his degree from nearby Texas Christian University, from which he graduated in 2000 with a degree in communications.
"Racing at Texas Motor Speedway is special to me because it's my home track," said Foyt, currently 43rd in the standings with just two starts. "I still have a lot of friends and family in the area. I also like the track a great deal. It's very smooth and fast, which seems to suit my driving style. I'm excited because we are using my favorite car as well.
"I think not being a rookie anymore is the biggest help because I noticed this year that I am much more relaxed in the race car."
Next on Foyt's dance card will be Talladega, potentially followed by Charlotte in May. He's also eyeing races on intermediate tracks like Chicago and Kansas.
"We've got the speedway car, so hopefully Talladega and maybe Charlotte for now," he said. "Really, it's up to my dad, because we're racing out of his pocket right now, so as far as he'll keep going, we'll keep going."
Foyt was just starting to gain some continuity and confidence in the second half of last season, including his best start (12th) and finish (16th) in the season-ending event at Homestead. Unfortunately, the No. 14 Dodge team lost primary sponsorship from Harrah's Resorts and Casinos, leaving him with little to look forward to.
At the same time, Foyt, who is using the same car this weekend that he ran so well at Homestead last year, shows the kind of resilience that his famous father, A.J., made a trademark of his career.
"We've been underfunded from the start," Larry Foyt said. "We're actually, I think, running better now with spending a lot less than we were even last year. It just took some time to get it all figured out.
"I haven't really been doing this that long, so as I've learned and we've gotten some good people around, it just takes time, I guess. Our NASCAR program has had so many changes every year that it's just been hard to get that continuity. It felt that last year we were finally starting to come together and then Harrah's pulled the plug on us and made us scramble again for this year."
At 27, and the elder Foyt's youngest of four sons, Larry is making the best of a difficult situation. He's keeping his options open when it comes to the bigger picture. If his father can't continue to support the team or if adequate sponsorship can't be found for future seasons, Foyt is open to becoming a driver for hire with other teams.
"What I've learned is that the next deal is going to have to be a pretty good deal," he said. "I'm kind of tired of running underfunded. I've struggled through it for the past four years. It's just something I've learned that I don't want to do anymore. So, if I do make a move and it's not in my own stuff, it'll be somewhere that there's a good sponsor in place and where they're serious about going racing.
"Hopefully we can get some one-race deals like we did here at Texas. Some local people came on board to help us out, and hopefully we can find some of that in some other markets. I don't want to be a start-and-park guy."
But for now, it's business as usual. Even if it means doing so on a part-time schedule, it's definitely better than not racing at all.
"Really, we're just trying to keep looking for sponsors and keep the doors open to the race shop," Foyt said. "I've also been talking to people about other opportunities. There's a lot of stuff. I'm not ready to give up on racing. It's what I've wanted to do my whole life, so somehow I'd just like to stay racing."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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