After taking six weeks off between the season opener and Saturday afternoon’s Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway, the Camping World Truck Series didn’t disappoint and showed up in spectacular fashion. From beating and banging to tempers flaring, there are so many things to take away from this race, but perhaps the most important is the influx of young talent the sport continues to see.
It all began Friday afternoon when Jeb Burton snagged his first career pole, posting a lap of 96.666 mph (19.589), barely edging the track record set by Timothy Peters last fall, and fellow rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. managed a lap quick enough to start on the outside front row. Think about it—that means the pair of rookies beat out guys like Johnny Sauter and Kevin Harvick who have dominated the last few years at the track.
“I was crying like a baby when I got out of that race car. It means a whole lot to me and my family. It’s really cool for my sponsor to have out of South Boston too. I worked really hard to get here. I’m really happy,” Burton said after posting his record-breaking lap. “I know if I won or got the pole, I’m going to be emotional—anywhere, especially here. Like I said, it means something to me. I live it, I eat it, I sleep it. It’s just a passion of mine and I’m just thankful to be in front of you all right now.”
And from the drop of the green flag, it became clear that both drivers deserved to start where they did and would be a threat throughout the duration of the race. Lap after lap, Burton’s No. 4 Arrowhead Chevrolet shrank smaller and smaller in his competitors’ view as he led the first quarter of the race with little challenge from anyone else. It wasn’t until the rookie found himself alongside Ron Hornaday, Jr., who is arguably one of the best restart masters ever to race in the Truck Series that Burton let up that top spot.
But Burton’s afternoon wasn’t without a bit of controversy. Having lost a handful of positions while he was stuck in the outside groove, the 20-year-old had worked his way to the front once again and ran into the back of Hornaday, spinning him out and knocking him out of contention for the victory. According to Twitter reports from Bob Dillner, Burton attempted to visit Hornaday to apologize for the earlier spin, but the veteran simply smiled and refused to talk to him.
Though Hornaday’s truck had a significant amount of damage, Burton maintained his position on the track and led a couple more times before he ultimately dropped to a solid third-place finish, his second top 5 in two races this season.
“I really wanted to win and had them covered for half of the race,” Burton said. “I was really good at the beginning and we adjusted to the track at half way and we still had them covered. I just used up too much of the truck late. But we’ve got nothing to hang our head about. We had a good truck all day.”
Meanwhile, Wallace had dropped several positions from the drop of the green flag but managed to remain inside the top 10 for much of the afternoon, but he didn’t give up. On a lap 162 restart, the rookie led his first career lap in only his second race. But it didn’t end there; he went on to lead a total of 34 laps before settling in for a fifth-place results.
“I’ll take it. It’s a top 5 for us at Martinsville. I can’t thank Jerry (Baxter, crew chief) and the guys enough for making great calls all race long,” Wallace said. “I found out these boys don’t play around when they’re trying to go. I know I was getting about three or four shots from (Kevin) Harvick, and I know he was trying to get by me. It was good fun racing.”
But it wasn’t just Burton and Wallace that excelled. A pair of high school students in Chase Elliott and Erik Jones made their series debuts thanks to NASCAR’s decision to reduce the minimum age required to race. And both impressed, running solidly all day long in their rides and bringing home sixth- and ninth-place results, respectively. Clearly, the sanctioning body’s decision was the right move and will allow several more talented drivers to showcase their talents.
This year’s rookie class came out of Daytona in February with a strong showing, however the plate race isn’t necessarily indicative of what the rest of the season will bring. On the other hand, Martinsville, a track that’s notoriously rough on newcomers, can be a better barometer when it comes to the level of talent each rookie possesses, and that’s just what happened this weekend.
In a race full of action that left me cringing and peeking between my fingers, the Truck Series once again proved why I continue to watch them week after week. But more importantly, the rookie performances at the half-mile paperclip left me hopeful for not only the rest of the season but also the future of NASCAR in general. Assuming they’re not sidelined by the many problems that face young racers working their way up the ranks, today’s rookies are poised to become tomorrow’s superstars.