NASCAR’s third level touring division, a.k.a. the Truck Series, came into being in 1995. It was a kinder, gentler era for the sanctioning body, when it seemed that they could do no wrong. It seemed if NASCAR had sanctioned a series for fat kids racing Marx Big Wheels around suburban supermarket parking lots, tickets to the events would have sold out overnight and some TV network would have paid them zillions for the broadcast rights. On one level, the idea of racing pickup trucks was ludicrous. On another level, the timing was flawless. That was an era when all of a sudden the Ford F-series and the Chevy C/K Silverados were replacing the Ford Taurus, Chevy Impala, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry as the best-selling vehicles in the U.S.
There actually was some talk of adding a companion series for SUVs or even minivans. Perhaps it’s worth noting that sometime this month, the last Chrysler minivan will roll off the line in the Ontario assembly plant, leaving 1,800 people out of work. SUVs and their bastardized cousins “crossovers” now compete with pickups for supremacy on the sales charts. The difference between an SUV and a crossover? I’m told that a typical SUV will get you far enough down the trails that you’ll be exhausted when it gets stuck and you have to walk back to the parking lot, while the crossover will get stuck within sight of the parking lot.
Cynicism aside, but still within easy reach as always, the Truck Series did very well at first. A lot of the major players in the sport, at least as far as team owners, dove in headfirst. Teams owned by Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt (decidedly senior) and Rick Hendrick won the first three championships in what was then known as the Craftsman Truck Series. Hendrick, Earnhardt and Jack Roush won the next three titles. Jack Sprague (HMS) won two of those first six championships (and another in 2001). Ron Hornaday Jr. (DEI) won two of those titles. Mike Skinner (RCR) and Greg Biffle (Roush Racing) won the other two.
One of the things that the Truck Series had going for it, at least during its inaugural season, is 15 of the 20 truck races that year were held on short tracks. Older fans had already started stating their preference was for more short track racing. NASCAR was a bit slow on the pickup there. Like, I think they finally realized it last year. By 2000, the Truck Series schedule was up to 24 races, but only seven of them ran on tracks of less than a mile in circumference.
Back in the early days of the Truck Series, the Cup drivers didn’t participate in the series very often, at least not the big name Cup drivers. The black No. 3 Goodwrench Silverado might have been a flagship of the series, but it was driven by Hornaday, not the Intimidator. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never won a Truck Series race. It would have been difficult for him to win one of those races in that he never entered one. His truck teams won two titles and 25 races, but Earnhardt never even entered a Truck Series race. Among other notable drivers, Jeff Gordon never ran a single truck race either. Jimmie Johnson ran just one Truck Series race (Bristol 2008), crashed out of it and finished 34th in a field of 36 trucks. How about Tony Stewart? Stewart had a reputation for being willing to race just about anything, anywhere, any time. The trucks? Not so much. He ran just six Truck Series races. He did win two of them (Richmond 2002 and 2003).
Rusty Wallace ran just one Truck Series race (Nazareth, 1996). Bill Elliott started just two Truck Series races. Terry Labonte started three races in the CTS and won one of them (Richmond, 1995). His brother Bobby Labonte made 10 starts in the series and won just one (Martinsville 2005). It was a hell of a race too, with Labonte just edging Ricky Craven for the win. Nobody booed him afterwards, perhaps because “haters” hadn’t been invented yet, or perhaps because the breed of Cup drivers who competed in truck races back then wasn’t as contemptible. Brad Keselowski was one of the few drivers who actually followed NASCAR’s intended stepping stones, running in the trucks (66 starts, one win), the then-Busch series and onto Cup. Another three-stepper is Kevin Harvick, who won 14 of the 123 truck races he ran.
So perhaps you’re sensing where I’m heading here, with my typical bulldozer-like subtlety. The drivers listed above are Cup series champions. Some of them never ran a truck race. Most of the others had only occasional dalliances with the trucks. But of course I forgot (silly me!) our reigning Cup champion, Kyle Busch. Busch has competed in 151 Truck Series races and has won 57 of them. He has a jaw-dropping total of 99 top fives and 120 top 10s in those 151 races. Yeah, those kind of stats will get your picture on a gum card right quick.
My guess is that Busch would have even more wins if it were not for NASCAR instituting rules limiting how many starts he can make in the truck (and NXS) series annually.
Admittedly I am part of the problem. I simply can’t watch a Truck Series race if Busch is entered. It’d be like getting a new Stephen King spook novel, reading the last two chapters and then trying to go ahead and wade through the first 500 pages. It’s no fun if you already know the outcome. Last week for the Vegas truck race, I literally asked another Frontstretch staffer to call and wake me if anything of great interest happened during that Truck Series race. He was stuck watching it because he had to write about it, I believe. (Editor’s note: This is a true story.) The phone never rang. Busch led 108 of 134 laps. Yawn. Pardon me, but I’ve seen this loony tune before. No this isn’t an anti-Kyle Busch screed. I’d be just as reluctant to watch the Truck Series races if a Chase Elliott, a Bubba Wallace or a Ryan Blaney won every race they entered, typically by large margins of victory.
It would seem that I am perhaps not the only fan out here in the hinterland who feels that way.
Kevin Harvick decided to post what was termed “a bounty,” $50,000 to any other Cup Series regular, who can beat Busch in a Truck Series race. A few points of note here. The term “bounty” upset some commenters in this week’s Frontstretch articles on the topic. A “bounty” also typically applies to a bad guy who needs capturing and punishment. OK, the term bounty is awkward. Perhaps Harvick was hoping to have his out-of-pocket cost offset somewhat by the paper towel-producing people? Perhaps the term “Challenge” would be more appropriate here? After all, it is said that everyone loves a challenge (other than those actually facing one that is).
Harvick tried to clarify things a bit by noting his bounty (or challenge) was never intended as a slight toward Busch, despite some occasional difficulties between the two Cup champions. For years, Harvick operated his own Truck Series team. He knows just how difficult and expensive it is to field a competitive Truck Series team, and how the purse money in the series often makes it a fool’s errand even during a good year. Harvick is likewise aware that you can write a dozen blank checks, hire the best people in the garage and plan your strategy carefully but still not win races. What he’s saying in effect is that Busch does a masterful job with his team and his driving. So who’s ready to knock down the King of the Hill … at least for one night?
Marcus Lemonis (the owner of Camping World and Gander Mountain) stepped up to the plate, doubling Harvick’s bounty to $100,000. Despite the fact you could easily blow 100 grand on a loaded-up crew-cab dually pickup truck to haul your sack lunch to the office these days, 100 grand is still a considerable amount of money, particularly in a Truck Series garage where the back of a lot of the crew guys’ uniform shirts read “Will Work For Food.”
(While we’re on the topic, I am told, but prior to this have never typed, the full name of the Truck Series this year is the NASCAR® Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Sort of rolls right off your tongue, huh? The abbreviation, or so I am told by people smarter than me, is NGROTS. Looks sort of like an industrial accident at the alphabet soup factory rather than a useful acronym.)
Other points worth recapping for the inattentive or those with short-term memory issues. The Challenge will be held during the four remaining Truck Series races Busch is (and was previous to the bounty) entered to compete in this season. Those tracks are Atlanta, Homestead, Texas and Kansas. Elliott has announced his intent to take the Challenge at Atlanta, while Kyle Larson will try to claim the check at Homestead, a track where he holds an enviable record, at least as far as leading laps. Both Elliott and Larson will compete in trucks prepared by GMS Racing.
A driver doesn’t have to win one of those races to claim the prize. He only needs to finish ahead of Busch in that event. Once the $100,000 bounty is claimed (presuming that it is), the Challenge is over. It does not remain in effect for any future events. No, a driver trying to claim the prize isn’t allowed to wreck Busch out of the race. If a challenger’s teammate chooses to wreck Busch, I am sure there would be an unholy hullabaloo for a bit. I don’t think they are allowed to hire Skinhead Space Aliens from Mars to abduct Busch the morning of the race, which sometimes seems the only way Busch will lose one of these races. There are no contingency plans in the place for an outbreak of the coronavirus in Florida. They do sell a lot of Corona in Miami-Dade, so fans should use their best judgment. To be eligible for the prize, a driver must be a full-time Cup competitor. If no driver claims the prize, the money will be awarded to a charity of Busch’s choice. He has chosen the Bundle of Joy Fund, which helps would-be parents struggling to have children with the cost of their treatment.
Over the weekend, Halmar International (primary sponsor of Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen) came up with a challenge of their own. They are offering $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who can beat a Cup Series regular (any one of them, not just Busch) to win a Truck Series race. There’s a novel idea. Have a series regular make some good money for winning a race doing their typical day job of serving as cannon fodder for Kyle Busch.
Even after all the smoke and fireworks clear, the controversy is likely to continue about having Cup Series drivers (one of them in particular) run in NXS and Truck series races.
Last year, Busch was limited to seven starts in the NXS. He only won four of them. Slacker. But while Busch took the spring and early summer off from the NXS, something remarkable happened. Other drivers, series regulars, emerged from his shadows and began winning some exciting races of their own. Fans got engaged with the series again as the media (as they always do) tried to get cute and label them “The Big 3.” Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell put on a foot-stomper of a title battle. Having been given a showcase to expose their talents outside of Busch’s shadow, all three of them found Cup rides for this season. And isn’t auditioning for the Big Leagues what the NXS is supposed to be all about? Some revel in a dominating sports performance. Even if the ball game winds up 22-0, they enjoy watching records be set. The most doubles hit by a left-handed batter under six-feet tall during a Thursday evening game. Some would say letting Busch run truck and NXS races while reigning Cup champion is like having a Cy Young award winner in a Little League game. Others put it more simply: It’s like taking candy from a baby.
The only potential problem with this challenging bounty stuff is something any good lawyer or marketing maven can tell you. Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to already. What if during the four Challenge races Busch brushes off the other drivers and does what he normally does, leading almost every lap and finishing several seconds ahead of the runner-up? Fans drawn into watching the race by the challenge are going to be bored out of their gourds and decide, “Thanks, but I’ve had quite enough of that for the foreseeable future.”