Bruce Martin: Unlikely Rookie of the Year looks back on his time in Sprint Cup - Sports Illustrated

Unlikely Rookie of the Year looks back on his time in Sprint Cup

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Although Andy Lally is proud that he was the 2011 Sunoco Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, the award comes with mixed emotions. He claimed the crown because none of the other first-year drivers were able to put full-season efforts together, in effect winning the title by default.

"It's an honor to get the award, but it's not an honor I'm beating my chest about and bragging about because we got it being the only driver eligible," Lally said. "But it's really cool to be able to add my name to the list of distinguished rookies in the past and look back on the experience, not just as a rookie, but as a NASCAR driver and to have had all the fun and excitement I got to go through all season long at all the different and exciting venues that we raced at."

Lally competed in 30 of the 36 Cup races last season for TRG Motorsports, with a best finish of 19th at Talladega in April. He failed to make the field for three races -- Darlington, Charlotte and Phoenix.

Unlike other Sprint Cup rookies, Lally's background wasn't in stock cars. He came from the Rolex Grand American Series, where he tallied 24 career victories, including wins in the last three 24 Hours of Daytona -- the series' premier event. His team owner in that series, Kevin Buckler, also owns TRG Motorsports, and he opted for Lally despite his lack of stock car experience.

"It was quite a difficult transition," Lally admitted. "I was going into a series where I knew almost no drivers and was going to be racing at tracks I had never raced on before. Ninety percent of the tracks I had never been to before. The experience was new every single weekend. ... Coming from a different style of racing series and not having come up through Trucks and Nationwide, I was a rookie in its truest form. There was no, 'The last time I was at Texas in the Truck I ran this line or when I ran in the Nationwide car the night race was different than the day race.' It was absolutely, feet to the fire, figure this out real quick or you aren't going to last in this series."

There are many ways to measure success on the racetrack. For stars such as Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, championships and race victories are the yardstick. But for drivers breaking into the sport, it's all about progress, whether in a race or, in Lally's case, qualifying for the contest.

"It was additionally challenging because we were a `Go or Go Homer' for 16 or 17 races that season where we had to make the race on time," Lally said. "I did that in 13 of the 16 races that we were `Go or Go Homers.' Those were some of the most intense qualifying laps of my whole life. That is one of the prouder moments of my whole season when you come in and have no background in this and are able to qualify for the race on your own merit and beat established guys out of the race. That was a neat thing."

Some of the races that stand out for Lally were his 25th-place finish in the night race at Bristol and a 21st-place finish at Watkins Glen.

Although Lally enjoyed his NASCAR experience in 2011, he won't be returning in 2012. He made the business decision to return to Grand Am where he will drive the No. 44 Magnus Racing Porsche for the full season with the hopes of picking up a few Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup races for teams that want a "road course ace" behind the wheel at venues such as Infineon, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake.

For Lally, the decision was pure economics.

"The thing that led to my decision to go back to Grand Am full-time was looking at the landscape of NASCAR," he said. "The team I was with did not have a sponsor signed for 2012 and on top of that there were four teams closing down at the end of 2011, which meant there are four very good, experienced Cup drivers looking for a ride.

"In many ways ... one of the hardest things, but possibly one of the smartest things I've done is giving up the flat-out pursuit for a Cup ride right now. I had to make the decision to go back to Sports Car [Series] racing because there was a good seat available and I can't afford to not be racing. It's what I do for a living. To wait until the last minute and find out there wasn't a Cup seat available, or a quality Cup seat, would be too much of a risk for me financially.

"I need a job."

And he has one in Grand Am, a series to which he's looking forward to returning.

"And to have a season where we didn't do it top-notch and right, as cool as the experience was, it is understandable to anybody that it was frustrating. We're doing it right at Magnus Racing and it will be cool to go back and give a full championship charge and expect wins every weekend."

Now that's spoken like a true veteran.