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Sometimes, it’s a struggle to come up with something to talk about in a series that takes five weeks off after its first event. With just one race under their belts, it’s hardly time to start talking about championship favorites, though you’d have to look at Matt Crafton’s near-invincibility last season and wonder who might have that good fortune this season. But instead of looking at championship favorites, how about a look at a few drivers worth keeping an eye on this season?
Brian Ickler – No. 7 Red Horse Racing Toyota
If you’ve been following the Truck Series for a while, then here’s a name that should sound familiar. Brian Ickler made his debut in 2009 at Kansas Speedway with a solid fifth-place finish. He started on the pole twice in his limited 11 starts with Billy Ballew Motorsports, all while picking up three top 10s. In 2010 and 2011 combined, he made just 11 more starts, garnering seven top-10 finishes before falling off of the NASCARradar.
Fast forward to this season, and Ickler has been tapped to pilot the No. 7 Toyota for Red Horse Racing, a ride left vacant by Jon Wes Townley, who took his Zaxby’s sponsorship to Wauters Motorsports. After starting 21st at Daytona, Ickler did his best to just avoid trouble and be a part of the group racing for the went at the end of 250 miles, however it didn’t go his way as he was caught up in the big one on lap 73.
“What a frustrating end to our night. We had such a great Bullet Liner Toyota Tundra. It was so well-balanced and we were just riding around and waiting until those final laps to make our move,” Ickler said of his first start with RHR. “I want to thank Bullet Liner for coming on board, and all the guys at Red Horse Racing for putting together such a great truck. It’s going to be hard to sit still for five weeks. I am ready to climb back in the No. 7 Toyota Tundra right now.”
While it wasn’t exactly the season opener that the No. 7 team had hoped for, there’s still promise in this young driver. As Ickler gets to know his team members better and gels with crew chief Chris Carrier, he should start putting up some decent performances, especially considering he has stability in teammate Timothy Peters, who has been with the organization since 2009.
Ryan Blaney – No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Midway through the 2012 season, Ryan Blaney joined Brad Keselowski Racing, replacing Parker Kligerman, who had been abruptly released from his ride. In that race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Blaney survived six cautions and a green-white-checkered finish to bring home an impressive sixth-place result. Just two events later at Iowa Speedway, he made his first trip to victory lane, all but guaranteeing himself a spot with the organization the following year.
In his first full season of competition, Blaney managed to lead a combined 154 laps in 11 of his 22 starts. While he may have only finished sixth in the points standings, the driver of the No. 29 Ford added another victory, eight top 5s and 13 top-10 finishes to his resume, and on top of all of that, he also took home Rookie of the Year honors.
This year, he returns to the organization in hopes of running for the championship, and so far he’s off to a good start following a sixth-place showing at Daytona a couple weeks ago. At this point, the 20-year-old can really focus on improving his performance at tracks he didn’t post great finishes at last season since he’s seen the majority of those facilities before, and he’s definitely one to watch as the year rolls on.
Erik Jones – No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Following a rule change to allow drivers under the age of 18 to race in the Truck Series on tracks 1.1 miles and shorter, Erik Jones made his debut at Martinsville Speedway last April with a solid ninth-place finish. Just four races later, the young driver found himself in victory lane at Phoenix International Raceway last November.
Fast forward to the 2014 season, and Jones will share the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota with team owner Kyle Busch. Jones will return to the track in a few weeks when racing resumes at Martinsville, and he’ll have a chance to give crew chief Eric Phillips his 29th win, the most of any crew chief in the Truck Series. The 17-year-old may only be running a partial schedule this year, but he’ll likely make another trip to victory lane, and he’s sure to impress even more when he’s able to race full time.
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