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Monday, December 18, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Tony Raines

Tony Raines
Age: 42
#96 DLP Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Brandon Thomas
Nextel Cup Stats
Starts Wins Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's
Poles Avg Start Avg Finish Points Rank Driver Rating
0 31.8
Laps Led DNF Earnings
28 11
Want an idea of how the new Toyota teams will fare in 2007? Look to Hall of Fame racing for an example. The way their season went might be the absolute best scenario for how to form a Cup team. The #96 car quietly and uneventfully worked their way into the top 35. Once there they began building a foundation for the next year. With a combination of Terry Labonte and Tony Raines, the car was simultaneously avoiding trouble and the spotlight. The two combined for 1 DNF all season.

Crashes are a season killer. This is especially true for an upstart, one car team. Raines had an exceptional season in this context. Toyota teams should aim to mirror the #96’s smooth entry to the Cup series. Staying inside the Top 35, finishing races and avoiding crashes are the three big keys to success for a rookie team. Hall of Fame accomplished all three.

The team had a lot of other factors to help avoid many of the growing pains of a new team. Labonte and his Champion provisional started the first five races for a guaranteed starting spot. He finished every race to firmly secure the #96 team inside the top 35. This alleviated pressure once Tony Raines assumed the wheel at Martinsville. Joe Gibbs Racing also provided engines, cars and technical support. HoF was able to piggyback off of Gibbs’ experience starting a new car, which they endured in 2005.

After several years of scraping together rides in the various NASCAR series, Tony Raines finally landed a ride with a reliable, funded team. He made the most of his chance in 2006. Raines is the type of driver that will not generate attention or incite on-track drama. He simply drives hard, completes laps and finishes as well as possible. Despite running only 29 races, he still finished 35th in points. He bested Travis Kvapil and Michael Waltrip despite fewer starts.

Think about all the potential problems a race team faces every race. Now consider that Raines had one DNF and you realize how impressive his record was last year. Obviously some luck is involved, but the driver and crew also need skill. It's deciding when to pit when he hears a vibration, avoiding cars on pit road, and not squeezing into a small hole on lap 40. The crew also deserves credit for ensuring every part from the $45,000 engine to the $1.99 plugs are tested and working.

Raines finest night was the fall race at Lowe's. In that race he led 28 laps (the only laps led of the year) on his way to a 7th place finish. It was also his highest driver rating of the season with a 97.0. This was the key piece of a solid run down the stretch. In the final seven races, Raines' average finish was 19.2. The strong finish coincided with a crew chief change. Phillipe Lopez was promoted to competition director, opening the door for Brandon Thomas to call the shots for Raines. Thomas was last a crew chief with Bobby Labonte at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2004.

Raines can't get comfortable with his solid 2006. His sponsor DLP Texas Instruments was ranked in the top ten for greatest visibility. This basically means that Texas Instruments has a lot invested in the team. Now that the team has progressed past the infant stage, improved results will also be expected. Raines was brought back for 2007, but nothing is certain long term. Is he the driver to elevate HoF to an elite team? He needs to continue improving his results throughout the season. He has run well in other series, including four wins in the Truck Series. His strength is the intermediate speedways. Fortunately the 2006 notes from these tracks will still be relevant in 2007. Raines should have comfort heading to the type of track that comprises 40% of the schedule.

Long term, the team is working towards a second team. This is the only way to stay current in NASCAR. Multiple cars to share notes and date is the only way to keep up. The alternative is winding up like Morgan-McClure or worse, PPI Racing. This expansion will be Lopez' main focus as competition director. His other project is the Car of Tomorrow. Like every team next year, crews must have two track minds. One for the normal speedway cars and another focusing on the CoT. Hall of Fame will again be able to tap into Gibbs' resources and support to ensure this goes smoothly. As long as they have this connection with Gibbs, they will always have top equipment that the team can grow into.

The outlook for Raines is a top 25 finish in the points with 2 or 3 top tens. Avoiding trouble is again a large key in how he finishes. The Chase isn't a realistic goal this year. The points neighborhood consists of veteran drivers like Dale Jarrett, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek, and Raines can compete with all of them.

Previous Previews:

AJ Allmendinger

Michael Waltrip

Jeremy Mayfield

David Gilliland

Kenny Wallace

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