Beth Lunkenheimer · Friday September 9, 2011
Here we are in early September, and most of the Sprint Cup Series drivers have inked their contracts and are all set for the 2012 season and beyond. Silly Season this year on the Cup side is rather sedate; most pending free agents have re-signed with their current sponsors for next season. But while most of the focus has been on those guys in Cup, there’s a Truck Series full of Silly Season drivers not exactly taking the safe route. Along with that comes a few big questions as to who will find their spot and who will be left sitting on pit road without a ride to join the fun.
One team that has everything all set for the 2012 season is ThorSport Racing. It’s already been a fantastic summer for the growing organization; they just opened a new 100,000 square foot race shop last month in Sandusky, Ohio that was specifically built to house three teams plus all of the equipment to keep each truck competitive. And that’s just what ThorSport now has in line for 2012 and beyond. Freshman Dakoda Armstrong is set to run full-time next season for Rookie of the Year, joining veterans Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter who each inked extensions Thursday.
Sauter currently sits second in the standings, just 12 points behind leader James Buescher, with a victory and an average finish of 11th so far this season. Though he’s scored a victory in each of the last three seasons, this year is easily shaping up to be a career best, and I wouldn’t count out the possibility of Sauter capping it off with a championship in November. Here’s the best part: just 33, this two-time, full-time Cup competitor may just be entering his prime within a series that he’s clearly content to stay in for years to come.
“It’s an honor to drive for a fourth year with Duke and Rhonda Thorson. They have progressively built championship-caliber teams over the course of 16 years,” Sauter said. “It’s rare to find the support I’ve found here on the [No.] 13 team. I’m proud to have a home at ThorSport Racing, and I hope to continue that championship spirit in 2012.”
Sauter’s teammate Matt Crafton has been with ThorSport for all but one season since debuting full-time at the Truck level in 2001. Having scored his second career victory in Iowa earlier this year, the No. 88 team’s performance has dropped off slightly, with back-to-back 21st-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol putting them on the fringes of title contention at best. But, with that being said, Crafton has been undeniably loyal to Duke and Rhonda Thorson, partners who first gave him a shot ten years ago.
“I’m really proud to be extending my relationship with ThorSport Racing. Team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson and all the guys on my team have really become like a second family to me,” Crafton said. “When I first came to ThorSport, Duke promised me that this team would keep getting better every single year, and every year we continue to break records and raise the bar on the way to being what I believe is the best organization in the series. I’m really happy to continue to have the opportunity to race for them again next season.”
ThorSport Racing has maintained a presence in the Truck Series since 1996, fielding at least one truck in each event. It wasn’t until 2008 when the team scored its first trip to Victory Lane with Crafton, who scored his first victory in 178 series starts. It was vindication for the team that showed patience, continuing its support of their drivers while asking little in return.
“Clearly, with all the exciting things we’ve had going on in the 2011 season, having all of our drivers back in 2012 just continues [that excitement] here at TSR,” said Team Manager David Pepper. “ We feel as if we have two of the top competitors in the NCWTS in Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter and an outstanding young talent in rookie Dakoda Armstrong. We’re excited about getting all of our drivers and teams together for 2012 so that we cam compete for poles, race wins and top 5s into the future.”
Vice President of Motorsports Partnerships Matt LeNeve echoed Pepper’s sentiments.
“We have three quality drivers in our stable at ThorSport Racing, and that’s great for the Series as well as our growing sponsorship and partnership programs,” he said. “We’re looking forward to seeing Matt, Johnny and Dakoda continue a strong tradition of excellence in 2012.”
On the flip side of ThorSport’s great news, there’s Ron Hornaday, Jr., the four-time Truck Series champion who could easily be out of a ride come November. Kevin Harvick has made it no secret that Kevin Harvick, Inc. on the Truck Series side will be drastically different come 2012; he just hasn’t been very specific as to how.
“The landscape of KHI will not be the same, I can promise you that,” Harvick said when asked about the team’s future at Bristol a couple weeks ago. “There will definitely be some major changes. But as to what that will actually look like, I can’t answer that 100 percent.”
Sure, no one has the real answers to the question of what presence — if any — KHI will have for 2012 and beyond in the Truck Series. But, judging by Harvick’s comments, it will likely have quite a bit to do with getting the proper funding needed to be competitive.
“This program was built on winning and it was built on winning championships, and that was what was expected,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to have well-funded trucks over the past couple of years and winning definitely doesn’t hurt.”
Since the landscape of the team is dramatically changing, it’s a possibility that Hornaday will join the ranks of Johnny Benson and Mike Skinner as former champions that lost their rides thanks to sponsorship woes that have plagued the series for several years now. In a sport that relies more heavily on young guns than seasoned veterans who have proven they can get the job done, it has become increasingly harder for the elder drivers in NASCAR to find a spot that will allow them to keep racing.
But Hornaday isn’t going down without a fight. Well aware that his ride for next season is in jeopardy, the winningest driver in the Truck Series is searching for a home in 2012 and has supposedly contacted Chevrolet in those efforts, hoping to find an owner that’s willing to put him behind the wheel. So far, no takers but there’s plenty of time before February, 2012 dawns at Daytona – you would think the all-time championship leader in the series would settle somewhere, right?
Sadly, Hornaday, Jr. isn’t the only one whose future lies in question once the checkered flag falls over Homestead-Miami in November. Todd Bodine found himself in a combined effort with Randy Moss Motorsports in order to continue his 2011 season when the team he’s been with since 2004, Germain Racing, could no longer garner the sponsorship needed to keep the defending champion on the track.
Fortunately, there was the option for that joint effort with Randy Moss Motorsports which allowed Bodine to continue competing without missing a beat. And since moving over to the No. 5 truck, Bodine hasn’t had a DNF and has posted finishes no worse than 12th in seven starts. Though he’s managed to climb into the top 10 in points through the last seven races, he’s only trimmed six points off of his deficit to the championship leader, though.
The only real problem with this current arrangement is that Bodine’s future beyond Homestead is completely up in the air. Both Germain Racing and Randy Moss Motorsports have remained silent about their plans for 2012, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see their plans sidelined by the same problems KHI is facing at this point.
From the good news for teammates Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton to the potential bad news for previous series champions Ron Hornaday and Todd Bodine, it’s about time to declare Truck Series Silly Season fully under way. Clearly there are still plenty of questions yet to be answered, but that’s part of the joy in watching NASCAR — those unanswered questions leave you guessing but also keep you tuned in to find out what’s next.
Let’s just hope that for a couple of veterans in the Truck Series, that next step doesn’t include the unemployment line.
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