When it comes to drivers, many roads lead to NASCAR Nextel Cup competition. There are open wheel guys (Juan Pablo Montoya), Busch series guys (Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr.), and guys who did both (Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon). Here lately, another avenue has opened up into Cup, and provided teams with several talented young drivers. That avenue is the NASCAR Craftsman truck series.
Start with Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion. Throw in the winner of this year's Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick. Add multiple Cup winners Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, and you see one serious trend developing.
"The NASCAR Craftsman truck series has been a very important part of my racing career," Harvick said. "I received the opportunity to race in the truck series and it was where I think Richard Childress recognized my talent. I love to race and the Craftsman truck series provides some of the best racing anywhere. I look forward to the future of the truck series and competing in it for many years to come."
Ron Hutcherson, owner of Hutcherson-Pagan Enterprises, helped build the prototype for the truck series.
"We built the very first one," he said.
Conceptually, the truck series was born out west in Bakersfield, Calif. It held events at Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Seattle. While its competitors also banged fenders at Eastern venues, it provided young drivers on the left half of the country more opportunities to show their stuff than any other "feeder" series. Busch and his brother Kyle are from Las Vegas. Harvick is from Bakersfield. And Biffle is from Vancouver, Wash., near Portland.
Two other tracks that have or still play host to the trucks are Kansas City (I-70 Speedway, not Kansas Speedway) and St. Louis. Carl Edwards hails from Columbia, Mo., halfway in between. The winner of last month's Citizens Bank 400 at Michigan practically did one of his patented backflips when asked to describe his time in the trucks.
"Running in the truck series was awesome," Edwards said. "It was a great stepping stone for me in my racing career. I was able to learn and gain valuable experience that has helped me tremendously along the way."
Why does it help the young guns so much?
"It teaches the drivers to have more of a feel for the chassis," Hutcherson explained. "And it's just a good place for them to get started. The truck series doesn't run as many companion events with the Nextel Cup guys as the Busch series does, which helps the young drivers because they don't have Cup guys taking up a third of the field."
"The NASCAR Craftsman truck series is a great stepping stone for young drivers because the trucks are a little more forgiving than the Busch or Nextel Cup cars," Biffle said. "You learn car control in the truck series that helps in total driver development. The truck series also races at a lot of short tracks where tire management is very important and that is a skill that is crucial to learn early in your driving career."
Although the trucks' body styles can be a major hindrance, aerodynamically, they have many other features that give young drivers a feel they don't get in a Busch car.
"They have a high roll center," Hutcherson said. "The suspension's the same. The wheel base is just two inches longer, which isn't a big deal. And the motors are basically the same as the Cup motors, giving them more horsepower than the Busch cars."
Hutcherson said many Cup teams are starting to notice the similarities between the trucks and something they are all trying to get a handle on, and that is the Car of Tomorrow.
"The trucks are more like the COT cars," he said. "It seems like more Cup teams are getting into the truck series to develop more data that they can use for their Cup cars."
Many Cup teams have beat them to it. Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Motorsports and Childress Motorsports have all been active in the truck series since the beginning. Joe Gibbs Racing has since joined them.
The truck series has come a long way from its early days, when the teams didn't have pit crews. Now teams have full crews, who can learn the ropes along with the drivers.
Several ex-Cup drivers are also now competing full-time in the truck series. Young drivers can pick the brain of Todd Bodine, Johnny Benson, Ted Musgrave and Mike Skinner, among others. They also get valuable experience racing against them on the tracks, learning what to do and, sometimes, what not to do.
The NASCAR Craftsman truck series has become an important feeder series for the Nextel Cup series, in talent and competitive research data. There are sure to be more future stars who learn to shine by driving a truck.