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Winston Cup Series

Wednesday, December 26
Unser could drive for Foyt
By Jerry Bonkowski

Al Unser Jr.
The memory is etched in my mind as if it was yesterday. There was noted classic rock fan Al Unser Jr., a huge grin on his face, dancing and bopping around on stage, shaking a tambourine and jamming with Foreigner during a CART post-race concert in Cleveland six years ago.

As I sit here writing, I think how ironic it was that one of the songs Little Al happened to "sit in" on was one of Foreigner's biggest hits: "Feels Like The First Time."

And if things continue to move in the direction they're rumored, Unser Jr. will feel like he indeed is starting his career over again for the first time. That's if he aligns himself with one of the greatest names in racing, Anthony Joseph Foyt, known as A.J. (and no, we're not talking about the Backstreet Boy).

The reasons for an Unser-Foyt pairing are fairly obvious:

1. Galles Racing, for whom Unser has driven the past two seasons, is facing a major funding shortfall likely to force it to go on hiatus and miss the 2002 Indy Racing League season. While other IRL teams have expressed interest in Unser -- most notably the Treadway-Hubbard outfit, which Jack Arute reported on last week -- a deal is far from done. Not only is potential sponsorship a big question mark, the other key is whether enough funding could be found at this late date to assure Unser a full-time commitment.

With NASCAR, Unser is at the right place and right time in his career to try something new, and you can't get much better than the most popular racing series in the U.S.

2. With the Galles team likely to fold, Unser Jr. is obviously not looking forward to the prospect of being without a job for the first time in his 20-year career, which would be a bitter dose of reality for the two-time CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner.

3. Foyt is looking for a new driver for 2002 and has promised to make an announcement in early January. With limited testing left, it only makes sense to hire a veteran, someone who can quickly make the transition to Winston Cup racing -- and Unser certainly fills that bill. What's more, the Unser and Foyt families have been close friends for four decades.

Therefore, a Unser-Foyt marriage is a no-brainer. It would be a much-needed shot in the arm to Foyt's team and Unser's career, while also helping to strengthen NASCAR's lineup. The pieces couldn't fall into place much easier.

Unser admittedly has limited prior Winston Cup experience -- namely, one race -- having competed in the 1993 Daytona 500 in a one-off deal with team owner Rick Hendrick. He started 40th, but quickly moved up to as high as fifth before an accident cut his day short 42 laps from the finish line.

Unser also is a two-time IROC champion (1986 and '88). While certainly not a Cup car, an IROC car has many similarities and are much more aligned to Cup cars than open-wheel rides.

Unser is also one of the most versatile drivers in the business. He's piloted everything from go-karts to open-wheel CART and IRL cars, from IROC racers to off-road trucks to sleek sports cars in endurance races at Sebring and Daytona. Hell, he's even raced snowmobiles!

And even though he'll turn 40 in April, Unser still has a great deal of racing left in his talented hands and feet. With his vast and successful resume, he would fit in quite nicely with other 40-somethings on the Winston Cup circuit, including Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd and many others.

What does Foyt get out of all this? A return to racing respectability and notoriety, particularly in NASCAR, where he's considered one of stock-car racing's top-50 drivers of all-time. When Foyt returned to NASCAR as a full-time owner in 2000, his first campaign was marred by horrible performance and a revolving driver's door, with three pilots competing for Foyt -- Mike Bliss (for all of one race), perennial super-sub Dick Trickle (two races) and Rick Mast (24 races).

This past season, 43-year-old rookie Ron Hornaday drove the No. 14 Pontiac, finishing 38th in the standings and competing in 32 of the season's 36 events. His highest finish was ninth at Las Vegas. Hornaday has left the Foyt fold and will reportedly compete in some Busch and Truck races in 2002, leaving the door wide-open for Unser to hop into Foyt's waiting ride.

While Unser could knock around the IRL circuit in 2002, he is astute enough to know he likely won't find a better situation than Foyt's operation. Nor, would Foyt find a better, more successful driver.

What's more, and while this is obviously a long way down the road, the potential exists for Unser to follow in the footsteps of Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon and John Andretti as the only drivers to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

Not only would that be yet another "first" in Unser's storied career, moving full-time to the Winston Cup circuit would offer him renewed excitement and optimism he couldn't touch in the IRL. And considering Unser would be recognized in NASCAR annals as a "rookie" in 2002, it truly would "feel like the first time" for one of racing's greatest drivers -- and what a rookie campaign it could be.

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for

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