First COT road race adds intrigue
While Terry Labonte just wants to help out a friend, Boris Said aims to make a big impression at Infineon Raceway in the Nextel Cup's first road course race of the year.
Terry Labonte isn't hedging about retirement, he just wants to help out a friend.
The two-time NASCAR champion, who supposedly retired from driving Nextel Cup cars last fall, will get back behind the wheel long enough to run the two Cup road races this season for Michael Waltrip Racing, beginning with Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
This has been a tough season for Waltrip, who started his new three-car program as one of the flagship teams for Cup newcomer Toyota. There have been cheating scandals, off-the-track embarrassments and, perhaps worst, Waltrip has qualified for only three of 15 races in 2007. Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann, his teammates and employees, haven't done much better.
Jarrett used up his six allowable provisional starts as a former series champion early in the year, but Labonte, making his first start since last November at Texas, is assured of a starting spot in Sunday's race thanks to his status as a former champ.
"Michael and I had a long talk the other day and I just decided that I would be up to running the road courses for him to see if I can help him out," Labonte said.
Has the former NASCAR Iron Man -- he ran 655 of his 848 Cup starts consecutively -- had a change of heart about racing at age 50?
"It's kind of funny; some days when I watch a race, I kind of wish I was there and there are some days I am glad I am sitting at home," Labonte said. "I think when you have done something as long as I have, you still enjoy doing it.
"I still like the sport. But then there are other days where I am completely happy doing something else. The decision for me to run at Infineon and Watkins Glen is a good decision for me.
"It is so hard to start a new team these days," he added. "I know Michael has a long way to go with where he wants to be, so I hope that I can help him out at these couple of events. I'll give him my honest opinion and, if I see something that I think I can help, I will certainly lend the NAPA team my support."
Waltrip is grateful for the help.
"I like to think of myself as a good road racer, too," Waltrip said. "But this is the perfect opportunity for me to sort of step back and look at what is going on, try to help my boys get better, try to make my NAPA Camrys faster, listen to Terry's input, listen to how he works with the guys and what he sees. He's a champion racer."
Labonte has six top-five finishes and eight top-10s in 18 starts at Infineon, where he started 37th and finished third last year. But this will be Labonte's first time driving NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which makes its road racing debut this week.
"I've always enjoyed going out to Infineon, and it's a lot of fun to drive," Labonte said. "It is not an easy track by any means. And I'm sure it will be different this year with driving the Car of Tomorrow. I don't think anyone knows what to expect, so it should be interesting and a lot of fun."
Labonte did get a little warmup two weeks ago when he briefly tested a Busch Series car on the road course in Montreal, where that series will race for the first time in August.
"It was fun," he said. "I've gotten in my son's dirt car a couple of times, but it was good to get back into one of these types of cars. It was fun to run a few laps on the road course in Montreal. I am looking forward to Infineon."
Said optimistic with COTBoris Said will be back in his element this weekend, racing on the road course at Infineon Raceway.
Said is considered an ace on the circuits with right and left turns and, for several years, was hired by NASCAR teams for road races as one of the ringers who always show up at the two Cup road races.
He has broadened his horizons the past few years, driving on some of the NASCAR ovals as well, but road racing is Said's bread and butter.
"Every year, I have two favorite races -- the road course races at Infineon and at Watkins Glen," he said. And he is particularly excited about Sunday's race because it is the road racing debut of the Car of Tomorrow -- a bigger, bulkier car with a rear wing.
Said's SoBe No Fear Racing team, with veteran crew chief Frankie Stoddard overseeing the operation, has done considerable testing and development on the COT.
"Every year, I really look forward to coming back to Infineon because I've won so many races in so many different types of cars there," he said. "I think that this year, especially with the Car of Tomorrow, we have a realistic opportunity of running in the top five, and maybe even getting our first win."
Said finished ninth at the Sonoma track last year.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press