As the Camping World Truck Series took to the track for qualifying Friday morning in Dover, the session progressed much as to be expected. The pole changed hands until Kyle Busch took the track and laid down a blistering fast lap. That lap stood until Kevin Harvick knocked it down.
But late in the session, even Happy Harvick got knocked from the top spot from none other…than Justin Marks?
It was the first bright spot of 2011 for Marks and his No. 66 team, which heading into Friday had notched only one top 20 finish five races into the year. More importantly though, the second team flying Stacy Compton’s Turn One Racing banner made it count for all 200 laps on this race day, scoring their first top 10 result of the season. “It’s what we needed” Marks said of the finish, “to get some points and get the mood up a bit in the shop.”
This was more than a morale boost for a team that’s quickly found itself lost in the shadow of a hot shot teammate quickly making waves…it was the first tangible step towards building a winning operation for a new squad. And for the former road racing ace, it marked the first step in rekindling a career at the top echelon of NASCAR. Friday was indeed what Marks and the No. 66 team needed in a very desperate way.
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The last time Justin Marks sat on the pole for a national touring series race, it was in the ARCA Racing Series at New Jersey Motorsports Park last summer. Driving for the powerhouse Win-Tron Racing outfit, Marks was a championship contender thanks to a dominating win at Palm Beach International Raceway and nine top-10 finishes in 12 races. But the race prior to that weekend in Jersey, Marks had a stretch of five consecutive top 10s snapped by transmission damage late at the Berlin Raceway, leaving the No. 32 team to finish 20th and lose significant ground in one of the closest title chases in ARCA history. Marks with his ample road racing background needed a stellar day at New Jersey, and for a while it looked like he’d get it.
13 laps short of the finish, that all went up in smoke. Battling for the lead, Marks was bowled over by Chris Buescher heading down NJMP’s long frontstretch; his car wound up in a tire barrier, too damaged to continue. Another crash the following race at the dirt track in Springfield ended any prayer of title contention for Marks and the Win-Tron team, which also failed to find victory lane again in 2010.
While finishing sixth in ARCA points could only be considered a disappointment for a driver many considered the favorite in 2010, it was a strong enough performance to land Marks a seat at Turn One Racing. A seat that while providing a return to big-time NASCAR, has not come without its challenges.
“The [truck] series is more competitive then when I was here in 2008,” said Marks of his transition back from ARCA. “It’s so close right now. The trucks handle a little bit different, the spacers are a bit different since the last time I was here. All in all, it’s about adjusting to the environment that you’re in. It’s a very difficult environment, and it’s a unique driving style. These trucks drive so much different than the ARCA cars. For me, it’s just about getting back into that mode of driving a vehicle without a lot of horsepower, a real momentum vehicle, which isn’t necessarily what an ARCA car is.”
The move has required a change in perspective as well. For while Marks was among the class of the field in the ARCA Series one year ago, his new No. 66 ride is being built from the ground up.
“A big part of that is managing expectations” Marks continued in discussing his move. “You have to know it’s going to be a process, that you’re going to have to focus on things like communication and chemistry without a lot of depth and testing, which we don’t have the resources to do.”
Maintaining that patience has become more of a challenge thanks to Marks’ teammate, former K&N regular Cole Whitt. Whitt has come out like gangbusters to start 2011, including a pole win in his Darlington debut and sitting in the top 10 in points for the majority of the season.
“They’ve [the No. 60 team] been great teammates, we all get along and share information,” said the driver of the No. 66. “Cole’s a great kid with a ton of talent, and he challenges me as a driver.”
“[But] it’s become apparent that Cole and I need different things from our trucks. We share information; when one truck finds something the other one will try it, but it’s really about communicating our way with our crew chiefs. For us, we’ve got to get firing on all cylinders our way.”
Friday’s unlikely pole run was the first taste of that for Marks and his team; “The pole was a real kick in the pants for everybody, our confidence is up, and hopefully this is the start of a new No. 66 team and a new Turn One Racing” he remarked after his run.
That said, Marks didn’t lose sight of their accomplishment, adding “it’s very different to beat everybody for two laps instead of 200.”
When the green flag fell on the Lucas Oil 200 Friday afternoon, just how different the two tasks were became evident before the first lap was completed; Marks led the field to green, and exited turn 4 the same lap in the fourth position. Quickly, the No. 66 team diagnosed their truck’s handling issue as a loose condition on entry that, upon landing on the Monster Mile’s high banks, transitioned to a tight condition in the center that would shove their truck out of the groove and up the banking.
By lap 39, Marks had fallen to 10th. And under the race’s second yellow for Craig Goess’ spin not 10 laps later, the No. 66 team was penalized for speeding exiting pit road despite having the front pit stall. When the field returned to green on lap 50, Marks was on the verge of falling out of the top 20.
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Listening to the radio over the course of 200 laps this Friday, a casual observer would never know the No. 66 team was averaging a finish of 22.4 with only two lead lap finishes on the season. Never once was the team lost in terms of adjustments; the team’s spotter did a masterful job throughout the race of tracking Marks’ line as well as the precise points on the track where the No. 66’s loose and tight conditions were throwing the truck out of the groove. Never once was a voice even raised over the radio as the 200 miler played out, even when pit strategy and ill-handling saw the polesitters mired in traffic less than a quarter into the race distance.
What there was plenty of over the team’s radio was confidence. Confidence that had the entire squad unfazed at their speeding penalty. Confidence that had the team cracking jokes over the radio all afternoon long; affirming to his driver that his suggestions on corner entry were just that, suggestions, the team’s spotter told Marks under yellow on lap 156 “they’re just like being married and being told to do things…they’re suggestions. Maybe that’s why I’m in trouble with my wife all the time. Maybe I’ll advise you against that.”
Even Marks got in on the act later in the event as the race fell under caution for Justin Lofton’s wreck on the frontstretch on lap 178. Having just been passed by Kevin Harvick after a fierce side-by-side battle, Marks told his crew “[got a] gesture from Harvick that said if I ran him like that one more corner I was going to get wrecked. He was getting some kind of impatient.”
But for all the humor, the No. 66 team was in it to win it all day, and especially as the laps wound down. Taking a wave around and getting back on the lead lap with 16 circuits to go, Marks was told to “pull the skirt from his pedal and get some” on the track. That effort was quickly halted on lap 185, when Craig Goess wrecked cutting across the nose of Shane Sieg on the backstretch. The results of that wreck led to the one time all afternoon that Marks and crew actually sounded frustrated.
“It was nice of Craig Goess to drive that wrecked piece back to the garage and drop debris everywhere,” the driver fumed. “It’s going to take 10 laps to clean it up.” 10 laps the team knew they weren’t going to get back.
“Note to self: when the radiator’s at your feet, leave it where it is” the crew replied bitterly.
Despite the lost circuits, Marks and team still scored that top 10 finish they had been shooting for from the time they unloaded at Dover, finishing 10th; it was the driver’s first top 10 in Truck competition since Daytona in 2008.
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“Getting out of Dover alive is more the half the battle” a crew member on the No. 66 team remarked post-race as the team congratulated each other on a much-needed result. And while that might hold true for the battle that took place Friday night at Dover, that wasn’t the only fight Marks and crew were fighting this Friday. For the first time in 2011, the No. 66 team scored a result at the level of their overachieving teammates, and a result the likes of which they were shooting for.
As for Marks, the last time he won a pole back in Millville, New Jersey, it marked the end of a title hunt. With this latest run to the top of the speed charts only one state over in Dover, Delaware, a climb in the other direction may just be beginning.
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Some photography for this article provided by “The Hot Lap”:http://www.thehotlap.com/
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