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updated: 7/13/2011 1:56 PM

Lally finding his way on NASCAR's fringe

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  • Andy Lally looks to the sky Friday as rain closes in on qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at the Kentucky Speedway.

    Andy Lally looks to the sky Friday as rain closes in on qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at the Kentucky Speedway.

Associated Press

SPARTA, Ky. -- Andy Lally wants a hamburger. Badly. The bloodier the better.

Yet the former sports car champion turned NASCAR driver won't have one. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.

He'll deal with the craving, internalize it and put it aside just like he's done every day for the last seven years, since he decided every living thing was entitled to the same rights he enjoys.

Two years ago Lally took it a step further, moving from vegetarian to vegan, which means he's cut out dairy products, too. Though the 36-year-old from New York's Long Island considers it an ethical choice, he understands it's not for everybody, particularly the largely meat-and-potatoes crowd that crams the grandstand every weekend at a Cup race.

That doesn't mean he's not open to educating whenever possible.

"If (people) were able to see the mistreatment and what goes on and see what shows up to them in a nice shiny package," Lally begins then cuts himself off, saying "I don't want to go there."

Then Lally laughs. Sorry, he can't help but go his own way. When you're a newcomer driving for an underdog Cup team that's had a revolving door in the driver's seat for three years, you don't really have a choice.

Halfway through his first full-time Cup season driving the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Ford, Lally is trying to find pleasure in the grind. He heads to this week's race at New Hampshire 33rd in points, but with something almost resembling momentum.

Lally qualified seventh in Daytona two weeks ago only to fade to 27th after having trouble finding a running partner in the later portion of the race. He finished 32nd at Kentucky last Saturday, not bad considering he started as the 43rd -- and last -- car in the field.

Could the three-time winner of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona still be winning Grand-Am races somewhere? Sure. Yet he'd rather be sweating it out every weekend in Cup. Even if it means working from the back of the field.

"Every aspect of the Cup series is humbling, man," Lally said. "People will say, `He's coming from something so different he's going to get his butt kicked all year and if he makes any strides, great.' But on my end, it's not acceptable unless we're going forward."

And he's encouraged by the progress his somewhat thrown together team has made over the last five months. Though the 71 car has been around for the last three years, stability has been hard to come by. Lally is one of nine drivers to hop behind the wheel for owner Kevin Buckler since he founded the team in 2009.

The team switched from Chevrolet to Ford this spring and is already on its third crew chief of the year, with Doug Richert now calling the shots. That's a lot of moving pieces to deal with, and Lally remains optimistic the program is heading in the right direction.

"Even in races where we don't finish well, we try to break it down and find some stints in the race, like `we hit it, we hit it, we hit the setup right, I drove it right, we did it well,' "' Lally said. "We try to take the good parts out of it and analyze it and try not to do the bad things again."

Still, it can be a nerve-racking experience. He calls failing to qualify at Darlington and Charlotte earlier this year "one of the toughest things I've ever gone through as a professional."

Yet there's no place he'd rather be. Though he grew up in the Northeast far from the sport's southern roots, he's been fixated on NASCAR for years.

"These were my toys, these were my remote-control cars, these were my matchbox cars," he said. "This was just nonstop. NASCAR, NASCAR, NASCAR."

Even if acceptance has been hard to come by. He figured it would be part of the territory coming in. He found an ally at Daytona in Bobby Labonte, with the two working to run in the top 10 for portions of the race.

Yet when it came down to it, he found himself trying to forge his own way.

"I'm friendly with a lot of these guys," Lally said. "What it is is that I'm not best friends with any of them, yet. I'm not at the top of their list on who they're going to choose to go with."

Maybe he could make them.

Lally is a blue belt in Brazilian jujitsu and works out at a mixed-martial arts gym. In a series filled with skinny guys who aren't exactly athletic, Lally stands out. He's not just trim, he's taut. He has plans on becoming a competitive MMA fighter whenever his racing career ends, though his contract with TRG prevents him from so much as breaking a pinkie while training.

Asked if he could take most of the regulars in the Cup series and he just laughs.

"There's a couple of scrappy guys in this thing," he said.

Could he take them? Maybe. He allows having MMA bouts between the drivers instead of Saturday qualifying would make for more compelling television.

Then again, if given the choice, he'd rather beat his contemporaries on the track than in the octagon.

"There are different ways to go about (beating them)," he said. "Physical threats aren't probably going to make a lot of headway."

So he'll stick with the racing, and the diet that's helped define him.

"There's still a huge competitive drive in me to accomplish the goals I have set in this series," he said. "If there's a good team willing to have me on board, then I'm going to work my butt off to stay here."