The Frontstretch: Tracking the Trucks: North Carolina Education Lottery 200 by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Monday May 23, 2011

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Tracking the Trucks: North Carolina Education Lottery 200

Beth Lunkenheimer · Monday May 23, 2011

 

In a Nutshell: Kyle Busch took the checkered flag 0.317 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer to win the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday night. Busch took the lead for the first and only time with seven laps remaining and never looked back. Cole Whitt, James Buescher and Ron Hornaday, Jr. rounded out the top 5.

Who Should Have Won: Kyle Busch In a departure from the usual, Kyle Busch seemed to struggle with handling for much of the race and even spun his No. 18 Toyota to bring out the fourth caution of the night. But despite the handling issues, Busch and crew chief Eric Phillips worked on the truck and managed to pull enough out of it to take the lead when it counted the most. The win marks Busch’s third consecutive this season and his 28th career Truck Series victory.

Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race:

1. How did Kimi Raikkonen fare in his Truck Series debut?

Ever since Kyle Busch Motorsports and Kimi Raikkonen announced the two would collaborate to give Raikkonen his first career start in the Truck Series, all eyes have been on the Finnish driver with wonder as the NASCAR world looked forward to how he would perform. Well, that debut didn’t start off well as Raikkonen ran 30th in both practice sessions Friday before qualifying 31st.

But once the green flag flew over the field, the driver of the No. 15 Perky Jerky Toyota dropped a few spots then made some impressive moves to gain positions on the track. After missing pit road during the second caution, Raikkonen moved up to sixth and quickly dropped back on the restart.

“The racing was fun. Too many cautions. Every time that I would feel like the car would start to run better then you would have a caution and then it would take the track a long time before the handling comes back,” Raikkonen said after the race. “I hit [the wall] on the beginning and then I hit much harder and destroyed the car a little bit. The car actually run really well there before the pit stop. The handling was okay, but for sure the longer runs were a good thing. Just because the car was better and better during the long runs.”

It wasn’t until later that the No. 15 Toyota got back on the same pit sequence as the rest of the field when team owner Kyle Busch spun to bring out the fourth caution. Thanks to a flurry of late-race cautions, Raikkonen never managed to make his way back into the top 10 but finished out the night in 15th.

In a night that saw a record-tying ten cautions, Raikkonen managed to avoid a few close calls and bring his truck home in one piece on the lead lap. While it wasn’t the top-10 finish most expected, the solid 15th-place finish showed that Raikkonen is capable of running well in NASCAR but that it’ll just take some time.

“You would rather be more high up, but how it felt this morning, now I was pretty pleased with how it felt in the race,” he said. “For sure, there is still a lot to learn and improve, but I think when we have another race it will be better.”

And as it turns out, time is just what it looks like Raikkonen will get. FOXSports.com’s Lee spencer reported Saturday that Kyle Busch Motorsports is assembling a NEMCO Motorsports car for Raikkonen to pilot in next week’s Nationwide race at Charlotte. Because KBM is not licensed in the Nationwide Series, the majority of the crew along with the transporter, equipment and backup car will come from Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team with additional KBM employees.

But at this point, Raikkonen isn’t even sure he’ll remain in NASCAR.

“I don’t have big plans. I don’t have any plans for next year or anything of what I do. “I see how it is because I didn’t have any expectations when I came here,” he said. “It’s a bit like when I went to really—I didn’t have much expectation. We’ll see how it goes and what the future will bring.”

Regardless of whether “The Iceman” will remain in NASCAR for the long-term, he should definitely be proud of his performance on Friday night. I personally look forward to the two other races he’s schedule for—Martinsville and Homestead according to SPEED’s Ray Dunlap—and whether he’ll be able to learn from the track time and improve his performance.

Because ultimately, that’s what will determine whether he’ll be a flash in the pan or a future NASCAR star.

2. Are Todd Bodine’s hopes of defending his championship over?

Coming into Charlotte Motor Speedway, Todd Bodine and his No. 30 Germain Racing team looked to put their dismal start to the season behind them. With only one top-10 finish—a third at Darlington—in six starts this season, Bodine looked toward the mile-and-a-half Charlotte as a place to turn the season around.

“Charlotte Motor Speedway is a track I’ve always like. We’ve run well in the past,” Bodine said. “We need to get the whole package together and get the No. 30 Germain.com Tundra into victory lane. There’s no reason we can’t do it.”

And there was no reason for Bodine to think differently. After all, he does have 12 wins and 38 top-10 finishes in 59 starts at mile-and-a-half tracks on the Truck Series schedule.

But it wasn’t meant to be for the No. 30 team. Just eight laps in, Bodine got loose on his own and spun across the track before tearing apart the nose of his truck thanks to heavy contact with the inside wall. And of course immediately after hitting the wall, the question of whether Bodine’s championship hopes were now over came up, and commentator Michael Waltrip weighed in.

Six months ago Todd Bodine was celebrating a championship, but is seeing his hopes of a 2011 repeat fade after a miserable start to the season.

“I think it is. I think tonight had to be a big night for this team,” Waltrip said during the broadcast. “They’ve been struggling and now they’re in the wall on a mile-and-a-half track.”

While I’m not 100% sold that the dismal 27th-place finish is the end of all hope for repeating his 2010 championship, I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Waltrip. Sure there are still 18 races left this season, but Bodine finds himself buried deep in the standings—he’s 11th, 78 points behind he leader.

That said, the maximum number of points any driver can gain during a single race is 46. So theoretically, the hole the No. 30 team finds themselves in is possible to dig out of, but it’ll take quite a bit of work.

Current points leader Cole Whitt has run increasingly well this season and will likely visit victory lane at least once. And he’s not the only one that’s turned up the heat this season. Both ThorSport drivers—Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter—as well as Austin Dillon and Timothy Peters have been turning up the heat this season.

It’ll take some stumbles on the part of the teams currently inside the top 10, but Bodine and the No. 30 team have been known to overcome odds that are stacked against them. After all, the championship team from last season didn’t even expect to race the entire schedule.

Simply put, all hope is not lost, but the rest of the season is going to require the team to buckle down and shake off the proverbial monkey that’s been on their backs most of the year.

Truck Rookie Report
2011 Rookie of the Year Candidates:
Joey Coulter (No. 22)
Dusty Davis (No. 15)
Jeffrey Earnhardt (No. 1)
Chris Eggleston (No. 27)
Craig Goess (No. 46)
Justin Johnson (No. 51)
Parker Kligerman (No. 29)
Johanna Long (No. 20)
Chase Mattioli (No. 99)
Miguel Paludo (No. 7)
Nelson Piquet, Jr. (No. 8)
Cole Whitt (No. 60)

No. of Rookies in the Race: 7

No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 2; Cole Whitt, finished third; Parker Kligerman, finished eighth

Rookie Of The Race: Cole Whitt

Rookie Quotes

“It’s crazy. Our team’s just been so consistent all year long. The cup guys have been running so strong and to run third to them here and second the last race. We’ve just been so consistent and we’re outrunning the guys we need to. I’m excited—I feel like we’ve won the race—to come home in third to those guys and be as fast as we’ve been.” Rookie of the Race Cole Whitt, finished third

“It was really hard to get a good feel for how the truck was handling because of all of the caution laps. It’s hard to work on the truck when you can’t feel out exactly what it’s doing. Just a really long night but I’m glad we survived and we’re taking the truck home in one piece.” Craig Goess, finished 22nd

Rookie Notes

Cole Whitt continues to burn up the track in his rookie season. He started outside the top 10 but wasted little time getting there. Pit strategy left him mired in the back of the pack, but a late-race charge allowed the driver of the No. 60 Red Bull Toyota to charge through the field to a third-place finish. He leaves Charlotte as the first rookie to ever hold the points lead in the Truck Series.

Points Shuffle:

Rookie Cole Whitt moved up two positions now sits atop the standings with a slim one-point margin over Johnny Sauter. Ron Hornaday, Jr. moved up one spot to third while Matt Crafton’s first finish outside the top 11 this season dropped him three positions to fourth. Austin Dillon, who jumped a spot rounds out the top 5.

Timothy Peters dropped a position to sixth after getting loose and bouncing off of the wall just past the halfway point of the race. James Buescher was the big winner in the top 10, jumping five spots to seventh, and Clay Rogers remains in eighth. Parker Kligerman jumped four spots after an eighth-place finish, and Max Papis—down three spots—rounds out the top 10.

Quotable:

“I had an angel running with me that last run of the race with Zahra Baker. I can’t say enough about Zahra Baker and her troubling story and what all she went through as a little girl. Unfortunately her life was cut very, very short and we put her on the side of the truck tonight in order to give her some remembrance and some vindication maybe. I didn’t have the truck to win tonight and I think I had an angel riding with me. If you believe in that stuff, if you trust in that stuff and you have faith in it—it can come back and repay you. It means the world to me tonight.” Race Winner Kyle Busch

“We were just too loose all day long. I knew in practice we were going to have our hands full. It’s unfortunate. You could draft so big there and he got by me. Just proud of everybody on this truck. These guys worked their butts off today—they deserved to win today and I just didn’t give it to them.” Runner-up Clint Bowyer

“He thought I was blocking him. I don’t know what the heck happened. He didn’t know I was three-wide. I missed a shift on the start and Kyle (Busch) got outside of me and put the other guy (James Buescher) on the outside and we were three wide. And he thought I was blocking him and he just booted me. I don’t know.” Ron Hornaday, Jr., finished fifth, on his discussion with Johnny Sauter after the race

“First of all I’m proud of everyone at ThorSport. Just close racing there—I had a run on Ron and I know he was the bottom of three, but I had a run. You just can’t stop, you gotta keep going. Obviously I like racing with Ron and we race hard, but it hurt our night pretty good. It put a pretty big gouge in the front of our truck and took the nose off of our Chevy Silverado. Just a crazy night—everybody was just kinda beating and banging off of each other. The only thing I was mad about is it just ruined our night a little bit.” Johnny Sauter, finished sixth

Up Next:
The Camping World Truck Series takes a weekend off before heading to Kansas Speedway for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 on Saturday, June 4th. In 2010, Johnny Sauter scored his second career victory when he led 101 laps and bead Ron Hornaday, Jr. to the checkered flag by more than five seconds. Coverage begins at 2:00 pm ET on SPEED; the race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate.

Contact Beth Lunkenheimer

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