AP Photo/Rusty Burroughs
Howard builds momentum in second ThorSport ChevroletMatt Crafton's career-best season in the Craftsman Truck Series continued up front Friday night at O'Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis, as he finished fourth in the ThorSport Racing No. 88 Chevrolet. Even better, his wingman trailed immediately behind him for the first time. Shelby Howard, first-year driver of the ThorSport Racing No. 13, scored his career-best finish, finishing fifth at a track near his hometown of Greenwood, Ind., and showing that the team's potential goes beyond its third-in-points veteran. "It was good, being here in the hometown and doing well," said Howard, who turned 23 that same Friday and had plenty to celebrate. "The guys have been working really hard; they deserved it. Hopefully, we can take a little momentum from it for the rest of the year." If that sounds like a somewhat muted response from an excellent race, that's Howard. He's not one to get too excited over success, having already experienced the other side of the racing spectrum. At age 18 he had made great strides in his racing career, starting the 2004 truck season in the Bill Davis Racing No. 23. He earned the seat on the strength of his ARCA record, which included a start in 2001 as the youngest driver at the time to race in the series and a 2003 season in which he became the youngest winner ever at 17 years, 9 months and had 10 top-5s in 22 starts and a third-place points finish. Similar prosperity never came in the BDR Toyota, with no top-20s in eight starts. It was BDR's first season in the series, and its other trucks started out slow. Still, Howard was replaced after the season's ninth race. "I had a lot of opportunities at that time to do a couple different things, and I decided to go with Bill Davis. It was just a bad situation, really," Howard said. "It was a team that was thrown together, I was young and I was a rookie. It could have been a great situation for me, but at the time I didn't want it to go on any longer because it just wasn't working. "I didn't really learn anything as a race-car driver; I learned about the politics side of the sport. It can be pretty grueling." Johnny Benson took over the No. 23 immediately after Howard, failing to win until 2006 but now on a run of 12 wins in 55 races and leading the points. "I guess they thought Johnny was going to come in and fix the whole thing," Howard said. "He obviously didn't -- it took him a while. I was young enough that they didn't think I could get the job done with what I had." Howard ended up in the Hooters Pro Cup Series full-time, with a smattering of Nationwide starts, hoping to catch another full-time break in NASCAR at some point. That came with ThorSport, which had an opening after releasing 2007 Rookie of the Year Willie Allen. Owner Duke Thorson brought Howard on board without requiring the driver to bring in big sponsor dollars, although Howard did supply two rigs from his family's trucking company to pull team haulers. He's now 17th in points, showing prowess on the short tracks (fifth at ORP, sixth at Mansfield, Ohio) and trying to break through on the others. "He's working hard and he's learning. He's still young," Crafton said Tuesday during a break in team testing at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway oval. "Still trying to figure out the feel of these trucks, how to get them to handle at the beginning of a run to making them good at the end of a run. He's definitely got it figured out on the short tracks. Now he's figuring out what he's got to do to make his stuff good on the mile-and-a-half program. "You're not just going to come into this truck deal and come out here and win races and run top-5 each and every week. But I hope he is here for a long time. I definitely think he can be. He's just got to be patient." Howard also finished 20th in the Nationwide race at ORP, as ThorSport made its first start in that series by modifying one of Howard's Hooters Pro Cup cars. Howard said that car may also run in August at Bristol, Tenn. "They've been great to work with as far as that kind of stuff goes," Howard said. "[Thorson] really wants the 13 to succeed and run like the 88, and he'll take the steps to make that happen. "I'm getting the time to learn, and this is a good place for it." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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