Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway can't arrive soon enough for 41-year-old Hall of Fame Racing driver Tony Raines.

The sixth race of 2006 season will be his first opportunity to compete in the No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet and his first chance to take advantage of an important career opportunity.

The NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck Series veteran signed with his new NEXTEL Cup team before the start of the season, but yielded his seat to Terry Labonte, who secured a spot for the No. 96 in each race field with past champion's provisionals.

Labonte moved the No. 96 to 30th in the series standings and will turn the entry owned by Bill Saunders and NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach over to Raines for 29 of the 31 races remaining on the schedule. Labonte will return to the car for the June 25 road race at Infineon Raceway and the August 13 road contest at Watkins Glen International Raceway.

Four days out from his 55th career NEXTEL Cup Series start, Raines tested at Kentucky Speedway to gain a feel for his car and lay an intermediate track foundation he will need to be competitive in two weeks at Texas Motor Speedway.

"I didn't come here today to see how fast I can go," Raines said. "Terry had a lot of things that he liked about the car, but nothing suits everybody. So, we're just trying to go through the motions and get the rust knocked off of me. We only brought one car, so I have to be kind of careful, at least until the last run of the day. We'll get a Richmond test in after Martinsville, so, by the time we get to Texas we should be up to speed."

After making many of his previous NEXTEL Cup Series starts with moderately-funded teams such as R and J Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports and BACE Motorsports, Raines has been looking forward to competing with top-of-the-line equipment.

"This will be a lot of fun because I'll have the chance to get to race with all the tools - good equipment, a relationship with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) that is going to help us out a lot, and sponsorship from Texas Instruments with their DLP brand. We have a lot of the right things. It makes me a little bit nervous, but, at the same time, it's hard to play against the best drivers and teams when you don't have everything they have. Now, I feel like we do and we can compete."

In addition to his optimism, Raines also was enjoying the luxury of preparing for his important career step on a versatile track where he owns two third-place and two top-15 NASCAR Busch Series finishes.

"I love this racetrack, it has a little bit of everything," he said. "It's a pretty big track that has some speed to it. Turns 1 and 2 are a little flat and turns 3 and 4 are a little banked so you can iron out a lot of stuff here." He hopes the knowledge he gains will help him deliver his second career top-10 NEXTEL Cup finish on Sunday. However, should he fall short of that goal in his first start with a new team at a tough track, he won't be extremely disappointed.

"I'm anxious," Raines said. "Martinsville is a tough race track, it's a tough surface and just a hard place to race. But, it's a race and I'm excited about it. I just want to go there, run all the laps and not tear the fenders off, get my first race under my belt and pick up some steam. I've said top 25 is where I think we should be able to race, so, if I finished 25th or better that'd be on mark. Obviously though, we'd like to run top 10. Every week is tough, so we'll just have to do our best and stay out of trouble."

Regardless of the outcome, Raines will be simply happy to be in the driver's seat this weekend after watching Labonte and the No. 96 open the season.

"Friday and Saturday (at the tracks) weren't too bad because there were a lot things going on and I kind of got caught up in it," Raines said. "On Sunday, up until noon, it took forever. When the race was running I felt helpless because I could hear what was going on and the changes they were making, but I couldn't do anything about it. It's harder to watch your car out there racing than it is to be in it, especially at Bristol. Every time someone got near him (Labonte) I thought they were going to take him out. That just makes for a nail-biting race."

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~ Kentucky Speedway ~