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February 25. 2012 11:48PM

Allen Lessels' Motor Sports: North Country guy eyes top-10 finish at Daytona today


James Buescher celebrates atop his No. 30 Chevrolet after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday. The Daytona 500 is set for today at noon. (REUTERS)

A year ago, Frank Stoddard signed up former series champion Terry Labonte, bought and built some race cars, scraped together a crew and hustled up some sponsor money and took on the Daytona 500 for the first time as a Sprint Cup team and car owner.

Things worked out well for the North Country guy, a member of the Woodsville High School graduating class in 1986.

Labonte started 42nd in the field and sneaked away with a 15th-place finish to set a nice tone for the season.

Today, Stoddard and Co. are back in Florida for the 500 — it starts at high noon — and hoping for even a little more.

“We're really just down here looking to try and win the race,” Stoddard said on Thursday morning from Daytona. “To be honest, I expect to get a top 10. We'll start 43rd and try to stay out of trouble and work our way up through the field and see if we have a shot at the end.”

He has a driver who can do it and has fast cars that can do it at a place like Daytona, Stoddard figures.

This year, he can be a little less cautious than last.

Stoddard's still is no big-budget team, to be sure. It's still a one-car operation and he continues to reach out to sponsors, offering them a chance to get into Cup racing without the mega pricetag that comes with joining on with the big-name teams.

The goal for the season is to again to finish from 30-35 in the points — last year the No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford was 34th — and each week get exposure for his backers and run somewhere between 25th to 30th.

This week is a little different.

Stoddard's team is locked into the field for the first five races of the season and he can afford to go for it a bit here.

That the team is well ahead of it where it was last year at this time is a major part of the equation.

U.S. Chrome is back as a sponsor and Federated Auto Parts signed on early. Federated brings Ken Schrader, who ran half a dozen races for Stoddard last year and will probably double that number this year. Schrader is scheduled to be in the car for the July race at New Hampshire.

Labonte will again run several races with the backing of C&J Energy and veteran Mike Bliss will run a bunch of races for FAS Lane, too.

Last year's deal came together late and with the foundation from a season of racing and by landing some early sponsorship commitments, Stoddard was able to get a jump start on things.

“We were able to press pretty hard during the offseason and I feel we made improvements to the cars and made improvements to the crew and staff and overall have a better outlook right now than last year,” he said. “Last year, we had three cars and had to take parts from one car and put them on another and couldn't afford to get one torn up. Right now we've got nine cars. Last year we had three.”

Still, the staying out of trouble part will be key, especially today.

NASCAR has tweaked its rules and regulations to get away from the tandem racing that drivers had been using the last couple of years at tracks that require restrictor plates, such as Daytona.

Instead, as in the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday night at Daytona, there are going to be cars racing in larger packs.

“Last year, there were a lot of one-car wrecks and maybe two,” Stoddard said. “This time, if someone makes a mistake, there might be 10 or 12 guys caught up in it. The drivers like it better. I didn't like the two-car tandems and this is a better show for the fans and we're here to put on a show.”

Last year, Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere and was the stunning winner of the 500.

This year, why not veteran Terry Labonte, driving for a New Hampshire guy?

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NASCAR momentum generated by Speed Weeks in Daytona is being felt a good bit to the North, said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ticket sales for the NASCAR events at NHMS this summer were up 39 percent for last weekend compared to the matching Budweiser Shootout weekend last year, Gappens said.

Sales overall have been trending up as well.

“We're up seven or eight percent and the last three years we've been at a negative 10 to 15 percent so it's almost a 22-25 percent turnaround from the same time last year,” Gappens said from Daytona. “I think over the last couple of years we've gotten a lot of momentum in the sport and fans recognize that”

The fact that Tony Stewart snapped Jimmie Johnson's five-year hold on the Sprint Cup championship — and did it in an ultra-tight points race with Carl Edwards — provided a boost, as have some encouraging signs for the economy, Gappens said.

NHMS opens the doors on its 22nd season with its third FANtasy Drive on April 7 where fans have the opportunity to drive around the racetrack, get a look behind-the-scenes at the track and take part in various other activities.

The Sprint Cup dates are July 15 for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 — Danica Patrick and the Nationwide Series are on the track the day before — and Sept. 23 for the Sylvania 300.

The 22nd annual Vintage Racing Celebration will be held May 10-13 and the 89th Loudon Classic motorcycle weekend is June 15-17.

Allen Lessels covers motor sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at alessels@unionleader.com.


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