With March 31st and the Kroger 250 at Martinsville just about a week and a half away, it’s time to start thinking Camping World Truck Series racing once again. But sadly, with just one race in the books, it’s almost impossible to have built any kind of momentum for the teams _or_ the fans. That’s exactly what I’m here for today, though. With so many changes across the board and last season’s champion Austin Dillon moving on to the Nationwide Series, there are plenty of drivers to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.
When thinking about drivers that could really step it up this season, it’s hard to count out ThorSport’s Johnny Sauter. After all, he came within a mere six points of snagging the championship from Dillon in 2011. With two wins and 16 top-10 finishes in 25 starts, it’s easy to point to the black flag at Texas Motor Speedway in June as a reason Sauter fell short of claiming his first NASCAR title. While it wasn’t the only problem, the penalty and resulting loss of a victory and 24 points had to weigh heavily on the No. 13 team throughout the remainder of the season.
With that being said, there is plenty of motivation to ensure the same situation doesn’t bite them two years in a row.
Moving on and putting last season’s heartbreak behind them, 2012 is a new year and a chance for Sauter to run at that championship once again. Right now, it’s a clean slate with just one race in the books — the crapshoot of being wrecked while leading on lap 103 that was Daytona — and any troubles from last season are left behind.
The one sticking point could be ThorSport’s move from Chevrolet to Toyota during the offseason. While Toyota clearly has a strong background in the Truck Series, the transition may prove difficult for the first few races. But keep in mind what Toyota does have — 90 victories in 200 races (45% — not bad considering there are four manufacturers represented in the sport) and three championships since joining the series in 2004. Only time will tell whether the move to Toyota will negatively impact Sauter’s run at the big trophy in November, but I’m confident it’ll just be a minor stepping stone that’s easily overcome by the manpower ThorSport has built throughout their tenure in the series.
After Turner Motorsports’ strong showing at Daytona, it’s _very_ hard to look at them and not expect some sort of a run at the championship. And while Miguel Paludo and Nelson Piquet, Jr. — who headed to Victory Lane just last week in the K&N Pro Series East race from Bristol — are talented drivers, it’s James Buescher that I’ve got my eye on this season. Consider his 2011 performance after finding adversity early: despite sneaking out of Daytona with a solid ninth-place finish, the No. 31 team failed to qualify at Phoenix for the second race of the season and found themselves in a big hole. But that speed bump wasn’t enough to stop him; he responded with 18 more top-10 finishes in the remaining 23 races, ten of those being top 5s to challenge Dillon down the stretch for the season title.
Fast forward to Daytona in February, where half the field failed to finish due to crash damage, and a 17th-place result to start the season doesn’t really sound all that bad. Add in the extra confidence from a surprise victory in the Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, plus Buescher’s “locked in” status this season via owner’s points, and you’ve got a recipe for success in 2012. It’s only a matter of time before the 21-year-old finally heads to Victory Lane, and barring back-to-back major disasters at Martinsville and Rockingham, he’ll be solidly in the championship hunt throughout the year.
*Ron Hornaday, Jr.*
Ron Hornaday, Jr. is one of the _huge_ question marks banging around in my head at this point. With four championships to his name, the 53-year-old is one of those guys you always expect to see in Victory Lane more than once each year, but a curveball was thrown at the veteran when Kevin Harvick, Inc. shut down after last season. That didn’t stop Hornaday from landing a new deal quickly, though; before the season even ended, he announced a deal to join Joe Denette Motorsports full-time this year.
I’m not sold on the pairing of JDM and Hornaday being championship material for the 2012 season just yet, but it’s still important to keep an eye on his performance regardless. After all, the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has a seasoned crew chief atop the box in Jeff Hensley, and it’s not the first time the duo has worked together. Hensley started the 2011 season making the calls for Hornaday at KHI, but finished off atop then-teammate Nelson Piquet, Jr.’s pit box.
Hensley brings with him a wealth of experience as a driver _and_ a crew chief. And while he never visited Victory Lane as a driver, he’s scored 21 wins in his 23-year career, including two with Hornaday last season (Texas in June and Atlanta in September). Hensley also earned Mechanic of the Year in 1990 while atop the box for Chuck Bown’s 1990 Busch Series Championship season. I wouldn’t be _completely_ surprised if the seasoned duo manages a solid run at the table, especially with the background each brings to the table.
I will, however be _very_ surprised if they _don’t_ make it to Victory Lane in the first five to seven races.
Despite five weeks off leading up to Martinsville and the two weeks we’ll wait for Rockingham to come around, there are still plenty of reasons to keep the Truck Series on your mind. From seasoned veterans to rookies, and everyone in between, NASCAR’s most hidden gem has plenty of surprises in store this year.
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