The Frontstretch: Tearing Apart the Trucks : Truck Series Makes a Perfect Training Ground For Young Drivers by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Friday May 23, 2008

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Once NASCAR declined to raise the minimum age to race from 18 to 21, a debate popped up on the Frontstretch Forums this week about age versus experience. And while there was some disagreement on when it’s appropriate to move into one of NASCAR’s top three series, the general consensus was that experience makes a difference regardless of a driver’s age; and unfortunately, so many young drivers today just aren’t getting enough of it.

Well, for those owners looking to develop young talent, I know where the best opportunity exists — and it’s not in Sprint Cup. Right now, there’s no better place for youth to gain that experience than the Craftsman Truck Series.

Not convinced? Just ask Jack Roush. More than anyone else, Roush seems to understand the importance the division can make to a young driver’s development, jumpstarting the careers of today’s Sprint Cup Series stars through their debuts with his Truck Series teams. He started by putting Greg Biffle in the driver’s seat in 1998; Biffle remained in Trucks full-time for three years, scoring 16 wins and winning the championship in 2000. Since then, Biffle has gone on to race for Roush’s organization in the Sprint Cup series, accumulating 12 wins and 66 Top 10 finishes to date.

The Cat in the Hat understands the value of experience gained in the Craftsman Truck Series; four of his current full-time Cup drivers began their high-level NASCAR careers there.

Kurt Busch also got his NASCAR start in the Craftsman Truck Series with Roush Racing. The older Busch ran a full season in 2000, finishing in the runner-up spot for the championship and scoring four wins before moving up to Cup in 2001. Three years later, Busch had won the title at stock car’s highest level, forever known as the first man to win it al under the new Chase points system. In his eight-year Cup career, Busch has scored a total of 17 wins and 106 Top 10 finishes.

After his two teammates before him laid the groundwork, Carl Edwards then got his chance at a Roush Racing ride. Edwards raced a partial schedule in 2002 and then ran a full season the next two years, scoring six wins before making the move to the Cup Series towards the latter part of 2004. Since making the jump, Edwards has ten wins — three of which have come this season — and 65 Top 10 finishes.

Today, Erik Darnell and Colin Braun are Roush’s latest “young guns” trying to make a name for themselves in the Truck Series, as Roush is one of the few owners that hasn’t abandoned the concept of bringing a young driver up through the ranks the right way. But you wonder why more owners haven’t followed suit. Just five rookies are running the Truck Series full-time this year, and of those, just one (Braun) is with a team with strong roots in the Cup Series.

That’s a shame, because history has shown us the advantage of gaining experience in this proving ground. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to any driver making their NASCAR debut in the Craftsman Truck Series is the number of series veterans and the wealth of experience they have to draw from. With guys like Ron Hornaday, Jr., Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague, and many more, there are plenty of people available for teaching any inexperienced driver the best line to run at a certain track, or how to race someone cleanly but competitively.

Starting a NASCAR career in the Craftsman Truck Series is far from a guarantee for success, but it’s certainly a great place to gain experience before moving up to the higher tiers of racing. With more and more “young guns” getting put in Cup rides before driving anywhere else, the value of gaining experience in a lower series of NASCAR is becoming highly underrated; and you wonder where some of the Cup rookies of the past few years would be today with just a little more racing under their belt in places like the Truck Series. While NASCAR currently does require a driver to be over the age of 18 to race in any of the top three series, the answer to developing good racers isn’t so much age… but experience.

And the Truck Series is the place to get it.

Did You Know…

  • Shane Sieg will be filling in for Kyle Busch at the Ohio 250 in Mansfield? Sieg subbed for Busch at Kansas and finished 18th in the No. 51 Miccosukee Resorts Toyota Tundra, enough to keep the team in first place for the all-important owners’ championship title.
  • Stacy Compton is making his first start at Mansfield Motorsports Park this week? Although this season marks Compton’s eighth in the Truck Series, the driver of the No. 4 Dodge Ram has never started a race at the half-mile speedway.
  • Ford is the only winless manufacturer this season? Their last win came when Travis Kvapil won the Smith’s Las Vegas 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
  • Jack Sprague has an average finish of 1.75 at Mansfield Motorsports Park? The driver of the No. 2 American Commercial Lines Chevrolet has one win and three consecutive runner-up finishes in four starts at the half-mile track.
  • Ford and Toyota are winless at Mansfield? Chevrolet holds three wins in the four races held there, and Bobby Hamilton scored the only Dodge win in 2005.
  • Dennis Setzer won this race in 2007 without making a single pit stop? Such strategy is now a thing of the past; the smaller fuel cell implemented by NASCAR for 2008 will force drivers to make at least one stop.
  • Sean Murphy returns to the Craftsman Truck Series after taking a year off to run in ASA? The 2007 ASA Late Model Series Rookie of the Year ran fifteen races in the Truck Series from 2004 to 2006, and posted a career best finish of 13th at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2005.
  • Keven Wood is making his first Craftsman Truck Series start of the year? He and cousin Jon Wood are sharing the No. 21 Air Force Ford F-150 this season. Keven has one start in the series to date, a 27th place finish at Memphis Motorsports Park.
  • Angela Cope, Scotty Crockett, and Jon Wes Townley all hope to make their Truck Series debuts this weekend at Mansfield? Townley is guaranteed a starting spot based on owner’s points, but Cope and Crockett will be forced to make the field on time.

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