Toni Montgomery · Thursday February 17, 2005
Welcome to 2005! Before we kick off this new year, I just wanted to let you know about a slight change in this column for this year. Instead of featuring both the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series each week, we’re going to try alternating the series from week to week. This is mostly for my sanity so that I don’t have to scrape the barrel for ideas for both each week, especially during the early part of the year when the truck series is only making monthly appearances. It should be to the readers benefit also and make for a better quality of column throughout the season.
I’d also like to encourage more reader feedback this year. You can of course feel free to drop me a line any week, but I’d ask if there’s something I haven’t discussed that you’d like my take on, please let me know. I know you readers are out there-I can hear you breathing!
This week I’ve decided to kick off 2005 with the Craftsman Truck Series. Last year going into the season there was a lot of anticipation because of the influx of top drivers and teams into the series. We were not disappointed. There was healthy competition all season with probably the largest number of drivers in the history of the series going in to each and every race with a chance to win. I don’t expect this year to be any different.
Not only does the competition remain solid but the Craftsman Truck Series may be entering an era that will give them an opportunity to increase their fan base. It has been steadily rising if the improved ratings for series races on Speed Channel are any indication but over the next few years there are a few anticipated driver arrivals that could boost that growth even faster.
Mark Martin is entering his last year of full time Nextel Cup Series competition but has emphasized he does not plan to retire from driving and has expressed an interest in racing trucks. He would like to be in the series in 2006. Ken Schrader has also announced next year will be his last in Nextel Cup and he will be gearing his part time Schrader Racing operation up for full time operations beginning in 2006 in anticipation of his arrival in trucks in 2007.
This year already former Cup stars like Ricky Craven, Steve Park, Johnny Benson, Jimmy Spencer, Mike Skinner, and Bobby Hamilton are racing full time in the Craftsman Truck Series. The big question is can these drivers bring their Cup fan bases into the truck series with them? And what happens when an immensely popular driver like Mark Martin comes into trucks?
This could be just the beginning. Here’s a little dose of “what if?” for you. Things are changing on the Cup side of the fence. Twenty years ago the top rides went to veteran drivers who could often continue to find the good equipment well into their forties. Owners were hesitant to take a chance on a rookie who could tear up a lot of equipment and cost a team a tidy sum of money in the process. Then Jeff Gordon came along and suddenly the whole mindset of the owners changed. Gordon’s success combined with larger amounts of sponsor dollars teams were able to procure began to plant the seed that younger was better. Now the drivers entering the Cup Series as rookies are often in their late teens and early twenties. Meanwhile the opportunities for veterans are drying up earlier.
The schedule and the pressure in the Cup Series have both grown with the growth of the sport as a whole. Now drivers are beginning to talk about retiring from the series earlier than they did in the past. In the past, drivers hung around in Cup until their fifties and were ready to stop driving altogether when they retired. If drivers of today start retiring at forty instead, it’s possible a number of them might still want to drive, just not in the grind of the Nextel Cup Series. If that’s the case, they might see the Craftsman Truck Series with it’s lighter schedule and more relaxed atmosphere as the place to go.
There has been a bit of a joke for years that the Craftsman Truck Series is the senior tour because a number of older drivers have been able to find success there. It has always been a nice mix of veterans and young drivers using it as a feeder series on their way to Nextel Cup. If many drivers follow Martin and Schrader’s lead, it may actually become more of a senior tour. But what does this mean for the younger drivers trying to move up? As long as there continues to be room for those who want to learn, it could mean an even better crop of rookies moving up who got to race side by side with the best in the business.
Growth of the truck series and it’s fan base would be great but there is one factor I would hope they’d keep in mind. Sometimes change isn’t necessarily for the better and right now the truck series is so much fun because it is accesible, not as high pressure, and is seen by many as a return to the good old days from an on-track competition standpoint. It is a relaxed atmosphere for both the drivers and the fans. I would hope NASCAR would remember that and make sure that whatever path they take to grow the series also tries to maintain this atmosphere as well.
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