At the start of the 2008 season, the Craftsman Truck Series was bracing itself for the emergence of a super-team. Fresh off the 2007 title, three-time champion Ron Hornaday Jr. was joined by his only peer… three-time champion Jack Sprague.
20 races later, the super-team is no more. After what both Sprague and owner Kevin Harvick have considered a disappointing 2008, Harvick pulled the plug and released Sprague from the No. 2 team, planning to utilize a number of drivers, including himself, to finish the season.
While Harvick has not named a replacement driver beyond next week’s race at Martinsville, speculation has begun to point at KHI development driver Ricky Carmichael, both for the final portion of 2008 and 2009. While Harvick has stated that any races Carmichael will run in 2009 will be not in the No. 2 but in a third truck pending sponsorship, I don’t buy it.
KHI just last week fielded an unsponsored ARCA car for Carmichael at Talladega, running the motocross convert in the lower-level race there for the same reason that development drivers Joey Logano, Scott Speed and others ran it… to gain approval to run in NASCAR events during Speedweeks 2009 at Daytona. If Harvick wasn’t at least considering Carmichael for the No. 2 truck full-time, why would getting superspeedway approval now be important? Subtract Daytona and Talladega, and there’s still 23 other races for Carmichael to race.
Having established Carmichael as a legitimate contender for the No. 2 ride, it’s debatable whether or not the young prospect is ready for promotion to big-time NASCAR. In his rookie year on the Camping World East Series circuit, Carmichael has been far from a slouch, sitting seventh in points with three top five and seven top-10 finishes to his credit. Nonetheless, one season of regional racing is hardly a thorough stock car education, especially for a driver who’s spent the majority of his time in motorsports on two wheels instead of four.
Do I think Carmichael is ready for a full-time Truck ride? No. But Harvick and KHI seem to think he is. And given Harvick’s record as an owner, I am concerned for Carmichael and his career development should he get that promotion. Carmichael, given how green he still is not just in the ranks of NASCAR, but in racing stock cars period, is a rookie that is going to require a lot of patience, even more than with most. Patient is not something Harvick has ever been as an owner.
Sprague’s recent firing speaks volumes to this. Sure, Sprague wasn’t a title contender this season, but look at his results. The No. 2 team was eighth in points with nine top-10 finishes to its credit. Not too shabby considering that this was not only Sprague’s first season with KHI, but the first full-time campaign for the No. 2 team in Truck competition. There’s a lot of teams in the Truck Series that would be thankful for the season that the No. 2 and Sprague have had.
Harvick has been even more impatient with many of his past development projects. Aaron Fike got only three starts in KHI’s then-Busch program before getting the boot. Granted, his starts were nothing to write home about, but as soon as Fike got into a full-time ride the following year with Red Horse Racing, he proceeded to post four top 10s and was in the top 10 in series points before being suspended for substance abuse. Sean Caisse got only one Nationwide start only to have the plug pulled.
The record goes further. Back in 2004, when Harvick took his Truck Series effort full-time for the first time, Matt Crafton was handed the keys to the No. 6. Crafton did an admirable job, posting a series leading 17 top-10 finishes in 25 starts and finishing fifth in the points. But that wasn’t good enough, and Crafton lost his ride.
Perhaps most notable was Harvick’s decision to release Burney Lamar in 2006 after less than one full season on the Nationwide circuit. Lamar had numerous notable runs, including a runner-up finish at Daytona, but struggled in many instances, driving for a new team on a plethora of tracks that he had never seen before. A lot of Lamar’s struggles could be attributed to equipment as much as driver performance. Lamar’s average finish in the No. 77 during his 2006 campaign was 22.6. Veterans Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte couldn’t do much better, as they averaged a finish of 20.6.
Want more evidence that Lamar was released too soon? Just this Thursday at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Lamar, who has dabbled in the Nationwide Series this year in field-filler rides for Day Racing Enterprises, was re-signed by sponsor Dollar General to share the No. 32 Toyota of Braun Racing with Brian Vickers in 2009. If Dollar General thought enough of this young gun to resign him even after spending a year field-filling, you can’t help but wonder what led Harvick to his decision.
One can only hope that should Carmichael get the call to the trucks in 2009 that KHI will be patient enough with him to let him develop. It will take seasons, not a season, for Carmichael to become competitive at this level, just as it has with Harvick’s co-driver in the No. 33 car this season, Cale Gale.
But while Gale has been fortunate enough to be given time to develop, the record of drivers at KHI who haven’t gotten that chance is far, far longer. And that does not bode well for Carmichael.