Beth Lunkenheimer · Thursday February 23, 2012
Hello, race fans! It’s time to shake off the cobwebs from the offseason because the Camping World Truck Series is back in action Friday night, and we have a lot of catching up to do before the green flag waves over the season opener at Daytona. As my husband and I talked about the upcoming start of what should be another fantastic Truck Series season, I couldn’t help but get excited. Heck, I even had goosebumps on my arms as we talked about not just a long list of new drivers, but a number of important storylines to watch. So, as the offseason wore to a close, I decided to change my traditional, team-by-team preview to look more at some of those “big picture” items to keep an eye on as the 2012 season dawns. Here they are, in the nick of time as tomorrow begins the 22-race dash to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway…
Veterans With New Teams
Perhaps the biggest story as last year came to an end was the closure of Kevin Harvick, Inc. and the loss of three quality rides in a series that was already seriously lacking. But that didn’t stop four-time champion Ron Hornaday, Jr. from lining up a new opportunity with another Chevrolet team before 2011 came to a close. At Homestead-Miami Speedway Hornaday, along with new team owner Joe Denette, announced he had signed on for a full season behind the wheel of the No. 9 Joe Denette Motorsports Chevrolet.
But it wasn’t just Hornaday who saw a little uncertainty ahead of him when planning for the 2012 season. After years of Todd Bodine piloting the No. 30 Toyota for Germain Racing, money became scarce, forcing the team to enter into a a partnership with Randy Moss Motorsports midseason. Bodine finished out a lackluster campaign with just 11 top-10 finishes and ranked sixth in points, well behind the leaders and it wasn’t enough to keep the team together for 2012. That meant the big question, after winning two titles with Germain is where Bodine would end up come Daytona. Enter Red Horse Racing, who offered their No. 11 Toyota up if sponsorship could be found. As it turns out, Good Sam Roadside Assistance signed on, so he’s all set for Friday night’s 250-miler, but there are no guarantees for the rest of the season … yet.
Then, there’s Mike Skinner, a face not present in the series since he and Randy Moss Motorsports parted ways following the 2010 season. But that changed in early February when the veteran signed on with Eddie Sharp Racing for Daytona. Even though it’s only a one-race deal at this point, “the vision is to have three full-time teams (the other two are Justin Lofton and Cale Gale) throughout the 2012 season,” according to team owner Eddie Sharp. Pending sponsorship dollars to fund the effort, Skinner could very well be on his way to another full season in the Truck Series. The two have worked together before, albeit with limited success; the 54-year-old failed to qualify for Daytona last year and brought home a 24th-place finish at Phoenix for ESR.
While Hornaday comes out as the top veteran, already guaranteed a full season, Bodine and Skinner still have some questions on whether they’ll be starting the second race. But the good thing for them is they’ll have more than a month to line up a sponsor before the March 31st visit to Martinsville, a scenario Bodine has managed to survive in years past. In my view, it’s critically important they remain in the series to teach and mold the young drivers coming up through the ranks.
Wide Open Rookie Race
Author’s Note: I’m only going to touch briefly on each of the new rookies this week, but for more on the new faces and their backgrounds, be sure to tune into Truckin’ Thursdays next week as I’ll go more in depth on each driver.
Alongside the seasoned veterans, there will be plenty of new faces littering the 2012 Truck Series field, all focused on one goal: the Rookie of the Year title. Dakoda Armstrong joins ThorSport Racing full-time, running the No. 98 Toyota, alongside Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter who have a combined 358 starts between them. Last season, Armstrong made seven races and scored a best finish of ninth at Kentucky. From there, you have Jeb Burton, who will share his No. 27 Hillman Racing Chevrolet with his father, Ward. The 19-year-old has yet to make a Truck Series start and still needs to be certified by NASCAR to race at certain tracks. That’s why Ward, who hasn’t made a start in NASCAR since 2007, will pilot the truck until Jeb is cleared for all superspeedways.
Ross Chastain, who has five starts under his belt, has signed on to run full-time behind the wheel of the No. 08 Green Light Racing Toyota. Behind the wheel of the No. 66 Chevrolet last season for Turn One Racing, Chastain scored his career-best finish of tenth in his series debut at O’Reilly Raceway Park. Another name that might sound familiar is Dusty Davis. He made just three starts with Billy Ballew Motorsports before sponsorship from Vision Airlines fell through, leaving him on the sidelines for much of the season. It wasn’t until Homestead in November that he resurfaced again, this time piloting the No. 15 Toyota to a solid 15th-place finish, a career best for the 19-year-old. The intent is for the team to run full-time, but that decision once again hinges on sponsorship.
Ty Dillon, of course has no such problem with the No. 3 Truck, a driver so many are talking about since he’ll have the same equipment older brother Austin drove to last year’s Truck Series championship. Ty made just three starts last year but was impressive just the same, scoring two top-10 finishes, including a career-best third-place effort at Texas in November. That brings us to another “top equipment” driver, Cale Gale, who landed in the No. 33 at Eddie Sharp Racing after the team acquired assets from Kevin Harvick, Inc. Not only will Gale get to use some of the same Chevys he piloted last season, but he’ll also have solid teammates in Justin Lofton and veteran Mike Skinner. The 26-year-old has made a handful of starts with KHI, scoring a best finish of seventh last season at Martinsville.
And who can count out Max Gresham with the benefit of a four-time champion as his teammate? Paired up at Joe Denette Motorsports with Ron Hornaday, Jr. will certainly spell an educational season for the 18-year-old piloting the No. 24 Chevrolet. Believe me, he’ll take the help. Despite having three Truck starts to his name, Gresham has only finished one race — Martinsville — and even then he was 25th, two laps down. Another new face brings along a new team as well. The newly formed Wauters Motorsports, created by Crew Chief Richie Wauters, will host Paulie Harraka behind the wheel of the No. 5 Ford in a full-time effort for the ROTY title. The 22-year-old Duke senior has just a lone Nationwide Series start under his belt — a 29th-place finish at Montreal — but experienced success in NASCAR’s K&N West Series.
Next, we have John King, a Kingsport, TN native who has just seven starts between 2010 and 2011, including a career best finish in his 2010 series debut at Bristol — he finished 15th, two laps down. King is set to pilot the No. 7 for Red Horse Racing, with strong teammates in Timothy Peters and Todd Bodine to draw from. Rounding out our list of rookies is Bryan Silas, who has made anywhere from two to six starts a year since 2007. He’s set to run the No. 99 Ford full-time, with assistance from Rockingham Speedway and hopes to improve upon a career-best 16th-place finish from Daytona in 2009.
It’s clear to see that there are plenty of freshmen that’ll be going through the learning process each and every week the series hits the track; but with such a large group of drivers, it’s certain to be a battle for that coveted rookie title.
No season preview would be complete without mentioning the dwindling Truck Series schedule. Having run 25 races each season since 2003, NASCAR trimmed three events off of the 2012 edition, leaving this year’s slate at a scant 22. As a result, the series will have more than a month off following Friday night’s season opener, and while that’s great for teams trying to scramble and piece together sponsorship for the season, it’s not the best way to build momentum for fans or teams.
Consistency to the Truck Series schedule doesn’t come until summer. August has dates scheduled on four of the five weekends that month, followed closely by June, September and November which each host three races. That leaves six(!) of the nine months to fit in the remaining nine events. With so many off weekends, it’s impossible for your casual fan to remember just when they should be tuned in for what is arguably the best racing each weekend.
But despite all the doom and gloom of a shortened season and whether the pattern will continue, as more and more tracks become a victim of the economy, there’s a bright glimmer of hope in an otherwise shrinking schedule. Last September, Rockingham Speedway President Andy Hillenburg announced the return of Truck Series racing to the one-mile asphalt track and called it part of the “goal to return Rockingham Speedway to its roots.” Having already made significant improvements to the aging facility, there were still plenty of upgrades needed in preparation for the April 15th visit (third race of the season, if you were wondering). SAFER Barriers were installed and upgrades were made to the scoring system and pit road. Fans, this race is what you wanted; now, it’s time to support it and keep the Truck Series going to The Rock for many years to come.
From old faces to new and everywhere in between, there are so many reasons to keep a close eye on the Truck Series this year. I hope you’re excited because I know I am.
Up Next: NextEra Energy Resources 250
Author’s Note: New this season is a feature very similar to the Frontstretch Folio found in Friday’s edition of The Frontstretch Newsletter where I’ll preview the upcoming race weekend. Love it? Hate it? Wish something more were in it? Let me know in the comments below.
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Date: Friday, February 24th
Length: 250 miles / 100 laps
Broadcast Information: 7:00 PM ET on SPEED
Weather Forecast: Isolated Thunderstorms (30%); High: 85; Low: 55
The defending winner of this race is Michael Waltrip, who edged Elliott Sadler by a mere 0.061 seconds in a last-lap pass to score his first career Truck Series victory in nine starts. Miguel Paludo was the top rookie after posting a solid fourth-place finish.
Drivers and Crew Members on Racing at Daytona
I am really excited to get to Daytona and get this season started. It’s always a difficult race because there is a high risk of not finishing because of all the accidents. You are also running flat out the whole time. It would be great to win a Daytona race, but my goal is to stay safe and finish the race in the top 5 or top 10 with a firm eye on the championship.” _Nelson Piquet, Jr.
“I love racing at Daytona. It is mentally and physically demanding on both the drivers and crew chiefs. In order to have a shot to win, the driver must keep his focus all day and the crew chief must play the strategy perfectly.” James Buescher
“Daytona is a 2.5-mile course that is very smooth and the trucks will be running wide open the whole race. I expect the tandem bumpdrafting to be a big influence on the outcome. It’s a different kind of a race compared to the rest of the season and superspeedways always have that element of luck and survival. Our goal will be to get safely to the last ten laps, then see what result we can get.” Chris Carrier, Crew Chief, Nelson Piquet, Jr.
“I am really excited about this year. My crew chief Dan (Bormann) put together a great team. This is going to be a fun year. We have a good group with a lot of experience. I feel like I have that now at Daytona, too, so it’ a good combination. We just need a little luck out there because these superspeedways can get tricky. They’re a lot of fun, though, and I am looking forward to starting the season strong.” Justin Lofton
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