NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: Young Guns and Veterans Keeping the Excitement High

Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks

As I sat here in front of my computer struggling to find _something_ important to write about with the Truck Series deep into a stretch of off-weeks (only 15 days until the next race!), I started looking back at topics that I’ve written throughout my seven-year tenure with Frontstretch. That’s when I came across a “four-year-old piece”:https://frontstretch.com/blunkenheimer/15289/ with four reasons to tune in on the rare weeks the series actually races. Back then, I listed Kyle Busch as one of the most important reasons to tune it, yet viewers have clearly disagreed; ratings for this season are still on the rise despite the younger Busch brother’s absence. So I present to you a couple of new reasons to keep on watching.

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Ty Dillion just might prove to be a bit better than big brother Austin. Will he progress quickly enough in 2012 to contend for a title in his rookie season?

*New Names Up Top*

Just take a look at the top 5 in points and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Four races into the 2008 season when I originally wrote on this topic, the top 5 consisted of Kyle Busch, Todd Bodine, Ron Hornaday, Jr., Dennis Setzer and Rick Crawford. Of those five drivers, only two are currently racing full-time in the series–Bodine and Hornaday. In contrast, today’s top 5 drivers include Timothy Peters, James Buescher, Justin Lofton, Ty Dillon and Nelson Piquet, Jr.

The first thing that stands out is the age difference. If you took out Kyle Busch in 2008, the rest of that top 5 consisted of seasoned veterans, but now, 31-year-old Peters is the only driver over 30 of the bunch. Peters, however is not new to holding that top spot at this point of the year. As I pointed out in “Pace Laps”:https://frontstretch.com/ahenderson/38506/ following Kansas, the driver of the No. 17 Toyota has been here before, however he fell off in performance and never saw the front again.

Like Peters, it’s no surprise to see James Buescher right in the mix of the championship battle early on. After all, much was said last year when the Plano, TX native managed to challenge the leaders despite missing the second event of the season at Phoenix, and while his performance to close out 2011 was impressive, it just wasn’t quite enough to mount a run at eventual champion Austin Dillon. But things have changed for Turner Motorsports this season. The organization came out of the gate swinging at Daytona, leading all but two of the first 83 laps on that clear Friday night in February and now they’ve got two wins in just four events, including Buescher’s first career victory at Kansas.

And that leads us to Nelson Piquet, Jr., one of Buescher’s two teammates at Turner. Following his 22nd-place finish at Daytona thanks to a green-white-checkered accident, the Brazilian has posted three consecutive top-10 finishes including a fourth-place showing at Kansas. In his second full season behind the wheel, Piquet now has the benefit of experience at each of the tracks the series visits, and so far that’s just what the doctor ordered for the No. 30 team that’s looking to put the 26-year-old into victory lane for the first time in his career.

Justin Lofton, however, is somewhat of a surprise with four top 10s to open the season in just his third year of competition. Having made the move to Eddie Sharp Racing mid-season last year, the then-sophomore driver was left to collect notes and work through the remainder of 2011 in an effort to prepare for 2012. And as it turns out, it looks like all of that preparation has paid off, as the 26-year-old is one of only three drivers to finish inside the top 10 in all four events this year (Peters and rookie Ty Dillon are the other two). Compare that to the last two years where Lofton scored just one top-10 finish in his first _nine_ races, and you can see how he’s sneaking a peek at the top of the standings so early in the year. Clearly the note collecting late last season has been beneficial for the entire No. 6 team.

With those four drivers down, that leaves us with Ty Dillon in his rookie season behind the wheel of the same No. 3 Chevrolet his older brother Austin scored the 2010 Rookie of the Year title before following up with the 2011 championship. Sitting just 14 points out of the lead, Dillon has already established himself as a driver to keep an eye on with four top-10 finishes, including a strong runner-up showing at Martinsville. Clearly the racing talent runs deep in this family, and while I’m not completely sold on Dillon as a serious championship contender quite yet, I am positive he’ll make it interesting as the season wears on.

When it comes to the season finale at Homestead and who walk away with the ultimate prize–the championship trophy–your guess is as good as mine as to who will come out on top. With 18 races still left on the schedule, so many things can happen that can change the complexion of the entire battle, but it’s highly likely there will be another first-time champion come November.

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While the Truck Series went from being the Seniors Tour to a proving ground for young talent, Ron Hornaday looks to come full-circle yet in 2012.

*Veterans In New Rides*

As the 2011 season ran through the final few events, uncertainty surrounded veterans Ron Hornaday, Jr. and Todd Bodine. Hornaday, who lost his ride when Kevin Harvick, Inc. closed up shop had his major 2012 details hammered out with two races remaining on the 2011 docket. Joe Denette Motorsports fields the No. 9 Chevrolet for Hornaday and has committed to the full season regardless of whether they can sell sponsorship for all of their races.

Now, just four races in, Hornaday is slowly working his way back toward the young guns in the top 5. Just 34 points behind leader Timothy Peters and just 11 markers behind fifth place Nelson Piquet, Jr., the 53-year-old has crept his way forward a few positions with each event. Currently seventh in the standings, Hornaday posted a season-high sixth-place finish a couple weeks ago at Kansas, and that’s definitely headed in the right direction.

Whether he can make a run at the championship remains up in the air, but the odds increased in his favor once JDM added a second truck to their stable with rookie Max Gresham behind the wheel. And while Gresham has struggled this season, the information that can be shared between teams will prove valuable if Hornaday expects to break up the young gun party at the front of the pack.

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Todd Bodine need only ask fellow former Truck Series Champion Johnny Benson, Jr., what happens when things go south sponsor-wise at Red Horse Racing.

Todd Bodine, on the other hand, was left to wonder if he’d find a ride for 2012 or if he’d end up sidelined thanks to a lack of sponsorship. Then, Red Horse Racing announced in early February that they’d tabbed the two-time champion to join their stable at Daytona with backing from Good Sam, a partner to series title sponsor Camping World. Though Good Sam’s sponsorship was good for only the season-opener, RHR has continued to field the No. 11 Toyota for Bodine. Sadly, the result has been less-than-stellar for the 48-year-old, with just two top-10 finishes in four starts paired with finishes of 25th and 31st at Martinsville and Rockingham, respectively.

However, a solid fifth-place showing at Kansas a couple weeks ago provided a much needed boost for the driver of the No. 11. While RHR continues “looking for sponsors to continue the quest for the 2012 Truck Series championship” according to team owner Tom DeLoach, a top 5 run is just what the doctor ordered. After all, it’s nearly impossible to sell a meaningful sponsorship with finishes outside the top 20.

Only time will tell whether RHR manages to pull together enough backing to keep Bodine on the track. What I’m more concerned about is the veteran’s fate should they continue struggling to find sponsorship; just ask 2008 Truck Series Champion Johnny Benson, Jr. what’s next if that’s the case.

In a time when NASCAR is struggling to keep fans interested in the increasingly “boring” races in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s the perfect chance to showcase the beating and banging featured in the Truck Series. So if you’ve found yourself tuning out of the Cup Series events, it’s high time to check out the trucks and see what you’re missing.

*Connect with Beth!*
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“Contact Beth Lunkenheimer”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14353/

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