The Frontstretch: Tearing Apart the Trucks: Evaluating Championship Hopefuls by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Friday October 28, 2011

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Tearing Apart the Trucks: Evaluating Championship Hopefuls

Tearing Apart the Trucks · Beth Lunkenheimer · Friday October 28, 2011

 

With just three races remaining to determine the Camping World Truck Series champion, four drivers find themselves separated by a mere 16 points. As the series heads into Martinsville Speedway tomorrow afternoon for the Kroger 200, each and every driver needs to step up and show their competitors what they’re made of, but it’s even more important for the four vying for the championship. But who will emerge as the victor next month in Florida?

Austin Dillon
Stats: 22 starts, five poles, two wins, eight top 5s, 16 top 10s, avg finish 9.9

2011 may not have been quite as successful as the 2010 Rookie of the Year had hoped for, but there’s nothing for him to be ashamed of. Having scored two victories this season, there were a few instances that may have resulted in further wins if not for some bad luck—not the least of which when his hood flew up with just a handful of laps remaining in the UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway. But the No. 3 team didn’t fold under the pressure—instead they buckled down and have held the points lead since he scored a runner-up finish after starting on the pole at the series’ second trip to Kentucky Speedway.

With just three starts at Martinsville, Dillon has posted a pair of 16th-place finishes before he came home seventh at the paperclip earlier this season. And his numbers at Texas Motor Speedway aren’t much better—he finished third in his first career start at the track but has posted two consecutive finished outside the top 20 since then. As for Homestead, Dillon finished 31st, four laps down last season.

Despite DNQ’ing at Phoenix only two races into the 2011 campaign, James Buescher has been neck and neck with the series’ heavyweights ever since.

James Buescher (-3)
Stats: 21 starts, two poles, zero wins, 10 top 10s, 18 top 5s, avg. finish 8.1

There’s no doubt the lowest point of James Buescher’s season came back at Phoenix when he failed to qualify for the second race of the season. But since then, the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has 17 top 10 finishes—18 overall—to put himself just four points behind after leading the standings for two weeks. Something that may worry Buescher heading into the weekend is that one of his three finishes outside the top 10 this season came in the form of a 31st-place finish at Martinsville in the spring.

But if the 21-year-old can survive this weekend, he’ll find himself in a better place next weekend at Texas, a track where he’s scored three top-10 finishes in five starts. But Homestead could come back and bite his championship hopes. It’s a track where he has just three starts and a best finish of 18th—not exactly the type of run you want to close out the season with when trying to score a championship. But since Buescher is so close to the lead, there’s a very real chance this season’s champion could be crowned without a visit to victory lane.

Johnny Sauter (-14)
Stats: 22 starts, two poles, one win, nine top 5s, 13 top 10s, avg finish 10.2

In his third full season with ThorSport Racing, Johnny Sauter has put himself right in the thick of the championship hunt. After finishing third in the last two seasons, that’s the same place the driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet finds himself now—only this time, he’s within striking distance of the leader. And having scored the victory at Martinsville this spring, it’s easy to look at Sauter as a favorite tomorrow afternoon.

Further, Sauter is no slouch at the other two tracks remaining on the schedule—Texas and Homestead. In six starts at Texas, he’s got four top 10 finishes and in four starts at Homestead, he’s got two top 10 finishes. The question that remains is whether he can get the job done this time; the driver of the No. 13 held the points lead earlier this season and has been unable to capitalize on the misfortune of his fellow competitors.

Ron Hornaday, Jr. (-16)
Stats: 22 starts, one pole, four wins, 12 top 5s, 16 top 10s, avg. finish 9.6

Like I said in last week’s column, Ron Hornaday, Jr. has put together a nice string of finishes that has brought him from 68 points back just six races ago to a mere 16 markers behind the leader heading into Martinsville. And there’s no question the veteran, a four-time series champion, knows what it takes to close out the season. Hornaday has clearly shown that it’s not smart to count out a driver who’s still mathematically eligible for the championship.

Martinsville is a track that has been hot and cold for the 53-year-old. After scoring his first career victory in this race last season, he finished third at the paperclip earlier this season—and he boasts a solid 9.2 average finish in 18 starts. And Texas Motor Speedway has been kind to Hornaday throughout his career—he has three wins and 11 top 10 finishes in 17 starts at the 1.5-mile oval. Add in ten top 10 finishes plus an average finish of 6.2 in 11 starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the veteran stands a very real chance of sneaking in and stealing the championship from the youngsters in the series.

The real question here isn’t who is more deserving of being a champion since each one of these drivers brings their own special quality to the race track each and every week. What’s more important is whether experience will pay off or if one of the young guns will emerge on top when all is said and done.

But with that being said, all four of these championship contenders will make it to the awards banquet held in conjunction with the Nationwide Series just days after the season ends. The only thing that remains to be seen is which one holds the big trophy. Perhaps an even clearer picture will emerge following the checkered flag tomorrow afternoon at Martinsville.

Contact Beth Lunkenheimer

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Sue Rarick
10/28/2011 09:47 AM
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The trucks were the bright spot in NASCAR this year…were…..While I have nothing against Austin, he has no right being #1. He clearly dropped down to pass at Talledega and should have been penalized. Ask Regan Smith about that being forced down defense and how well it worked for him.

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