As for the driver, well, he still has the same competitive fire that led to 35 Winston West Series wins, four Grand National — now called Sprint Cup — victories, a triumph at the 1950 La Carrera Panamericana and the NASCAR Award of Excellence.

“I’m hoping to qualify in the top 15,” Hershel McGriff said, “and finish in the top 10.”

The 81-year-old McGriff, named one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR history, will attempt to qualify for Saturday’s Bennett Lane Winery 200, the first of three races he hopes to compete in on the Camping World West Series circuit this year. The Toyota/Save Mart 350 is Sunday.

McGriff has not raced since April 2002, which was 57 years after he first climbed into a 1940 Hudson to compete at Portland Speedway at the age of 17.

Along the way he competed in the first Cup race at Darlington Raceway in 1950, set a single-season record with 12 West series wins in 1972 and became one of the most beloved and respected drivers in stock car racing history.

“He’s had this comeback in the back of his mind ever since he decided to step away,” said Ken Clapp, a former NASCAR executive and longtime friend of McGriff’s. “He never said, ‘I quit.’ He just hung it up for the time being.”

McGriff’s family moved from South Dakota to Portland during World War II. Shortly

after the war ended, McGriff began racing and was quickly regarded as one of the best drivers in the Northwest. 

His life changed in 1950 when he entered and won the La Carrera Panamericana, or the “Mexican Road Race,” which spanned five days and close to 2,000 miles.

NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. met McGriff in Mexico and asked the then-22-year-old to come to a new track in Darlington, S.C., to race in something called the Southern 500.

So, McGriff drove the same car he used in Mexico, a 1950 Oldsmobile, back to Oregon and then across the country. And with a ragtag, thrown-together pit crew, McGriff finished ninth in a 75-car field.

“Then we drove home,” McGriff said. “And that was before all of the highways were built. We were mainly on two-lane roads.”

McGriff would eventually run in 85 Cup races over 33 seasons. In 1954, he won four times, including on the dirt at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, and finished in the top five 13 times. And despite running just 24 out of 37 races, he finished sixth in points.

McGriff looked to be set up for a run at a championship in 1955 as he was offered a ride in a car owned by millionaire Carl Kiekhaefer, who ran a profitable boat motor company. Instead, McGriff chose to return to Oregon to raise his family and start what would eventually become a lucrative career in the mill and timber business.

Tim Flock drove Kiekhaefer’s car that year, won 18 races and the Cup championship by a wide margin over Buck Baker and Lee Petty.

“It wasn’t a tough decision at the time,” McGriff said. “Tim Flock got that ride, and it was a good ride. But my family was young, and while (racing) was fairly good money, you couldn’t put a lot in the bank. So I thought I’d go home and get something going.

“You could look back and what would have happened, and I probably would have won more races than Tim did. … But that’s done. It’s history.”

McGriff returned to racing in the late 1960s and went on to win 35 times on the Camping World Series West circuit. He was voted the series’ most-popular driver 12 consecutive seasons from 1981-1992. And at 61 years and 4 months, became the oldest driver to win a West series race when he took the checkered flag in Bakersfield in 1989.

It won’t be easy eclipsing that mark this week at Infineon, where McGriff won four West series races between 1983 and 1989. He first has to qualify, and then he has to race against the likes of Eric Holmes, Jason Bowles, David Gilliland, Boris Said and 19-year-old Sprint Cup rookie Joey Logano.

“If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. It’s all you want to do,” said Logano, who tested at Infineon last week. “I’m not sure when the last time he’s raced, but if you’re out of a car for so long, you can only watch so many races before you’re back in the car.”

McGriff will also try to qualify for the West series races at Portland International Raceway on July 19 and Miller Motorsports Park in Utah on Aug. 1. Right now, though, he and his crew are still putting the finishing touches on the car for Sonoma for practice, which determines the groups for qualifying.

And at that moment, everyone will probably know how competitive McGriff still is.

“You can get a good lap going (in qualifying), catch another driver and lose one or two seconds trying to get around them,” McGriff said. “But catching Joey Logano, well, I’d feel pretty good about that.”