Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Off-track woes can't derail classic points battle in Truck Series
By John Schwarb Special to ESPN.com
The weekdays were a drag this season in the Craftsman Truck Series. Seemingly every week, announcements came about a team downsizing, losing a sponsor or making a driver change. No team was immune from bad news.
But then the trucks would pull into another town for their quick one- or two-day shows, and all of the off-track doom and gloom would be forgotten as the best points championship and best overall racing in NASCAR resumed again.
This was a thriving year for the Truck Series, even as the ground shook beneath it.
Johnny Benson won the Craftsman Truck Series title by seven points over Ron Hornaday Jr.
For a second consecutive season, a two-man championship battle took hold in the season's second half and played out to the final race. Last year it was Bill Davis Racing's Mike Skinner and Kevin Harvick Inc.'s Ron Hornaday Jr. trading the points lead down the stretch, with Hornaday prevailing in the finale at Homestead-Miami when Skinner lost a points lead to a loose wheel.
This year it was the same two organizations, with Hornaday again, but this time against BDR's Johnny Benson. Their battle was even tighter, with single-digit point margins separating the two on more than one occasion and going into the finale. Benson went into Homestead leading by three points -- the kind of margin you'd expect between two drivers who through 24 races had the same number of top-10s (17), top-5s (14) and almost the same number of wins (Hornaday had six, Benson five).
Benson, unlike Skinner the year before, held on to his lead to take the title, but only after finishing seventh in the final race to Hornaday's eighth. The final points margin was seven, the equivalent of two positions in one race.
"The last couple of races, we knew it was going to come down to a great battle at Homestead. I said this the last couple of years, you're not going to know the champion until the checkered flag is thrown and everybody gets across the line," Benson said. "[Hornaday] was closing in on us, and it was making it a great points battle -- for one, for the two of our teams, but also for the race fans and for NASCAR."
The finale, broadcast on Speed just like the rest of the season, peaked at more than 1 million households and posted a Nielsen Rating of .96 (702,000 households), up 146 percent from last year's finale. The entire season was the highest-rated ever, averaging .80 (585,000 households), and 15 races posted double-digit ratings increases compared to 2007.
Not bad for a series with what seemed to be a doubtful future at times. Not until NASCAR finally sold its Trucks entitlement last month to Camping World -- after a prolonged search that ended with NASCAR settling for below its $5 million to $7 million asking price -- did rumors die down about the series' fate.
But a series sponsor is different from a team sponsor, and about half the Truck Series garage is going into the offseason with uncertainty over sponsorships for 2009.
Sponsorships played a big role in driver movement in 2008. Jack Sprague was released after a winless 20 races in the KHI No. 2 Chevrolet as owner Kevin Harvick, trying to line up a sponsor for next year, figured he would be better off driving it himself in an attempt to put it in Victory Lane to lure sponsors. As it turned out, he won at Phoenix, and Ryan Newman won in the No. 2 truck at Atlanta. (Five truck races were won by Sprint Cup regulars, with Kyle Busch claiming the other three.)
Sprague landed back at Wyler Racing, his home the previous two seasons, when the team parted ways with Terry Cook. Wyler will need sponsorship to continue next season, as will HT Motorsports, the team Cook finished the season with.
An influx of money will also be needed to turn around the fortunes of Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia, once one of the series' flagship organizations in winning the 2004 title with the late Bobby Hamilton. The team began 2008 with renewed optimism, having relocated from its original home in Tennessee to Virginia and scoring an emotional win not long thereafter with Dennis Setzer in March at Martinsville, not far from the new team shop.
Four months later, however, its No. 4 Dodge driven by part-owner Stacy Compton had to be parked, and staff were let go due to economic pressures. A few weeks later, Dodge announced that it would be cutting all funding to Truck Series teams for 2009, forcing BHR-Virginia to strongly consider another manufacturer for next season -- if it is around at all.
Ford also announced recently that it would curtail funding to the Truck and Nationwide series, forcing iconic Roush Fenway Racing into perhaps running only 2008 rookie of the year Colin Braun full time next season, a considerable drop-off for a team that fielded three trucks at every race this year. Circle Bar Racing will continue with Rick Crawford and Brendan Gaughan, but it is unknown how many other Fords will materialize in three months at Daytona.
Only Chevrolet and Toyota -- for now -- have solid financial footing in the series, and not coincidentally they have powered the strongest trucks. In the past three seasons, a sort of "big four" has emerged: Benson, Hornaday, Skinner and Todd Bodine. All drive Chevys or Toyotas (Bodine pilots a Tundra for Germain Racing), all have finished in the top 10 each of the last three seasons, and all have combined for 41 wins in 75 races. Bodine won the 2006 championship by 127 points, but of course the two championships since have been closer. And 2008 was as good as any battle in any year of NASCAR.
"If people didn't get their money's worth from this deal, I don't know what they were looking for," said a laughing Rick Ren, crew chief for Hornaday in last year's championship season and this year's runner-up effort.
If you kept your eyes squarely focused on the track, the view was terrific.
Benson remains coy on 2009
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Johnny Benson didn't show his hand on where he might race next season. But it's difficult to imagine he would not defend his championship, especially with a manufacturer in Toyota that has been bullish on the Truck Series.
"Toyota's been a part of [discussions]. I can guarantee you, they were definitely afraid that I was going to go to another manufacturer and run either part time or full time, so yeah, their influence there has been great," said Benson, 45. "Time will tell what the full plans will be, whether it be part time or full or whatever. But, they're, you know, pushing hard to have me continue on, for sure."
Benson said he has turned down "at least four opportunities," but there are a couple of offers to run the full 2009 season that "looked fairly enticing."
The rumor mill for weeks has placed Benson at Red Horse Racing, a team that appears to have some momentum with its No. 11 Toyota secure for next year in driver (David Starr) and sponsor. Adding a second truck in a bad economy is never a slam-dunk proposition, but having it driven by the defending champion likely opens some doors.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.