Just when you thought the Truck Series points race couldn’t get more exciting, the Smith’s Las Vegas 350 did just that. The combination of a dominating win by Travis Kvapil and a blown tire for Ron Hornaday Jr. has tightened up the points race just a little more… opening the door to make it a three-man affair.
It was hard to see this sudden turn of events unfolding earlier in the month. With both Hornaday Jr. and Mike Skinner finishing in the top three at the New Hampshire 200 on September 15th, they looked to have fully separated themselves from the pack. After that race, Hornaday Jr.’s points lead stood at 29 over Skinner; the closest competition behind them was Kvapil in third, 271 points back and looking like a longshot for the title at best.
But that all changed last Saturday night at Las Vegas. Kvapil started on the pole and dominated most of the night, scoring his fourth win of the season and ninth of his career. In the process, the driver of the No. 6 K&N Ford gained an amazing 90 points on the front two in just one race. Behind him, points leader Hornaday Jr. looked like he might open up the gap between him and a struggling Skinner… but his Goodyears had something different in mind. Late in the race, Hornaday’s tire blew, shredding the right front of his truck and sending him to the pits for repairs. He slumped to 22nd place, ending an incredible streak; it was his first race this season where the veteran didn’t finish on the lead lap.
In addition to Hornaday Jr.’s struggles, Skinner had problems most of the night with his own truck. Almost immediately after taking the green flag, the No. 5 Toyota Tundra started dropping back through the pack, suffering from handling problems that never seemed to go away. It actually could have been a far more disastrous run; in the end, Skinner rallied to a 13th-place finish, managing to take the points lead by only three over Hornaday in the No. 33 Camping World Chevrolet.
“We just struggled all night,” Skinner said after the Smith’s Las Vegas 350. “Whatever it is, we didn’t capitalize on our night very well. It was just one of those deals. Ronnie [Hornaday] had bad luck. We tightened it up some [though], so I guess we can’t complain.”
But Skinner’s loss was someone else’s gain. Kvapil, clearly encouraged by the 90-point pickup, is back in this points race, and he still hopes to win his second championship since joining the series in 2001. “I tell you what, coming into tonight, I didn’t think we had much of a shot,” said Kvapil. “You never give up hope, and you never know what can happen in six or seven races. We’re going to continue to run up front and try to win races. If they have a bad day here and there, I think we’ll be right there in the hunt by the time we get to Homestead.”
While it’s impossible to say which one of the three will come out victorious, this marks the closest points margin in series history with just six races left. The question is, who will avoid the bad luck and take home the trophy? Only time will tell; but one thing’s for sure, don’t expect both the drama and the excitement to end anytime soon.
Craftsman Truck Series Odds and Ends
Previous Indianapolis 500 Winners Make Their Series Debut
Open-wheel star and 1995 Indy 500 champ Jacques Villeneuve qualified seventh for his series debut in last Saturday’s Smith’s Las Vegas 350. The No. 27 Sonax Toyota took a little bit of damage when Villeneuve hit a spinning Brian Scott, but he otherwise drove a clean race in what was a solid, if not spectacular, debut.
“The truck was running really strong in the first part of the race and the lap times showed that,” he said upon exiting his truck. “After [the accident], I lost all the downforce. The truck got really tight, and it was just a matter of trying to patch it up and trying to run to the end.”
Villeneuve never could rejoin the lead pack after the wreck, though; he ended up 21st, one lap down. “It was a great experience,” concluded the freshman. “We learned a lot tonight.”
Was Villeneuve on the mark with his assessment? While a 21st-place finish in a field of 36 drivers doesn’t sound spectacular, he certainly has no reason to be upset. Bill Davis Racing has made it no secret that seat time in the No. 27 is most important right now, and Villeneuve made the most of that opportunity Saturday night, finishing all but one lap to get valuable experience under his belt. BDR is doing everything they can to prepare the Canadian driver for a full-time ride in the Nextel Cup Series in 2008, and the equipment is certainly up to par; had Villeneuve been able to avoid the spinning truck of Scott, I have no doubt that he would have been running in the top 10 by the time the checkered flag flew.
In addition to Villeneuve, 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier also made his Truck Series debut last Saturday night, piloting the No. 15 Flanders Beef Patties Chevrolet for Billy Ballew Motorsports. Lazier had to drop to the back of the field at the start due to unapproved changes made to his truck, but he still managed to finish 24th, three laps off the pace.
Like Villeneuve, seat time is the key for Lazier, who fell behind with a truck which doesn’t have the same resources as that of the series’ top contenders. While the former open-wheeler has no current plans to join the Nextel Cup Series or any current plans to run another truck race, he was excited about his run and seems interested in pursuing it. “I can’t say we have any rock solid plans, but we have a lot of irons in the fire trying to make things happen,” he said. “So I’d like to do it.”
Looking towards the future, it seems the talent is there for both these drivers; all they need is time. It’s a simple equation; the more laps they can spend on the track, the more successful both are likely to become.
Three-time National Midget champion Leffler will pilot the No. 1 RFMS/Red Horse Racing Toyota Tundra for five of the remaining six races on the 2007 Truck Series schedule. He replaces Green, who took the ride after Aaron Fike was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for violating their substance-abuse policy. Since joining Red Horse Racing in July, Green has completed all but four laps; however, he has scored just one top-10 finish during that span, a fifth at Kentucky in his 2007 Truck Series debut. Since then, he’s scored six consecutive finishes between 14th and 20th… apparently, that was enough to cause Red Horse to look elsewhere.
Leffler, a NASCAR veteran, hasn’t run the Truck Series since 2004, when he finished 24th at Darlington in a one-race appearance. He last ran the full season in 2002, where he scored a total of eight poles and 15 top-10 finishes for the former Jim Smith/Team ASE program. Leffler currently races the No. 38 Great Clips Toyota in the Busch Series full-time. Due to a scheduling conflict with that ride, Brandon Whitt will take the wheel when the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway in late October.
No. 29 Crew Chief Fined
Larry J. Pryor, crew chief for Scott Lynch in the No. 29 Jasper Engines Dodge, was fined $5,000 for an infraction found during opening day inspection at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The truck was found in violation of Section 12-4-A (actions detrimental to stock car racing), Section 12-4-Q (truck, truck parts and/or equipment used in the event not conforming to NASCAR rules) and Section 20B-5.9D (unapproved modifications to the plenum area of the truck’s engine intake manifold).
Lynch finished 19th at Las Vegas, his best run of the season so far.
Three Drivers Post Best 2007 Finishes
Terry Cook scored his first top-five finish of the season after a two-tire stop put the No. 59 Harris Trucking Toyota in fourth, a spot he held until the checkered flag flew. “Our program keeps getting better and better,” said Cook after the race; it was his first top-five finish since Atlanta last October.
Josh Wise – sharing the No. 00 Aaron’s Toyota Tundra with Ken Butler III and AJ Allmendinger this season – made his case to get the ride on a more regular basis. He posted a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, besting his finish of eighth a week earlier at New Hampshire International Speedway. “We are making progress,” the rookie said of his recent improvements in the CTS.
Finally, Chad McCumbee scored the first ever top 10 for MRD Motorsports in the No. 8 Chevrolet. The 10th-place finish was also McCumbee’s first top 10 of the season after posting a 13th-place finish in the season opener at Daytona. “I tell you what, we had a truck that could win at times,” said McCumbee. “We definitely needed this, and I am really looking forward to going to Atlanta with these guys.”