Kvapil's return throws Truck Series up for grabs

Travis Kvapil knows he's not exactly following the standard NASCAR career path. Once you've moved out of the Craftsman Truck Series into a full-time Nextel Cup ride, it's usually not part of the plan to come back.

Then again, it's also rare to get an offer like this one.

Kvapil, the 2003 Craftsman Truck Series champion, is returning to the circuit after two mediocre years in Cup -- and he's doing it in one of the series' best rides, the No. 6 Roush Racing Ford F-150.

"It didn't take me long to figure out that's where I wanted to be, where I needed to be," the 30-year-old Wisconsin native said.

Last summer, Kvapil realized his Cup dream was going nowhere fast. In 2005, his stint driving the No. 77 Dodge of Penske Racing brought only two top-10s and a 33rd-place finish in the points. In 2006, he moved to the No. 32 Chevrolet for PPI Motorsports, only the view was no better as he finished 36th in points after 31 races, none with a finish higher than 19th.

His future seemed murky, until Roush president Geoff Smith called. Mark Martin, who piloted the No. 6 truck to a half-dozen wins in just 14 starts last year, was moving to Ginn Motorsports and Chevrolet for 2007. Roush needed a new driver, one who could presumably pick up where Martin and David Ragan (the new driver of Roush's No. 6 Cup car formerly driven by Martin) had left off.

"It came kind of out of the blue," Kvapil said. "At first I didn't know if I was making the right decision or not. I had a few opportunities [in Cup for '07], not with backmarker-type teams, but teams that were outside the top 20.

"I've been there, and it's a big struggle with all the new teams coming in and a new manufacturer [in Toyota]. I thought I really needed to align myself with a top-notch, quality team, get my face back on the map, to get back into Victory Lane."

If preseason testing results are any indicator of things to come, Kvapil might not be long for adding to the five wins he picked up in the trucks from 2001 to 2004. At Daytona last month he recorded the top speed in every segment of the three-day test, topping out at 179.354 mph in a single-truck lap and 186.521 mph in the draft.

Just as importantly, Kvapil found what had been missing in his two years in Cup: teamwork.

"One thing I've noticed right away, the whole organization shares information. It's not just Erik [Darnell, last year's Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year for Roush], not only my teammates in the Truck Series. I've got seven teammates in the whole organization," Kvapil said. "We'll send information to the Cup shop to try it, and vice versa.

"These multicar teams, teammates, there's just no substitute for that, how you pool your resources. We had three teams at Penske that were three independent teams, none worked well together and it showed its results when I was there. Then with a single-car team last year we were definitely on the side of being underfunded, where you just don't have the resources to do the testing you need, to be on the leading edge on setup information, aerodynamically, everything. It really made me realize the importance of the multicar teams."

Roush is banking on Kvapil, the No. 99 of Darnell and the No. 50 of Carl Edwards and Peter Shepherd to cut into the multicar domination of Toyota. While much of the attention on the make this year will focus on how its Camry performs in Cup, its Tundra has already established itself as the truck to beat. Last year, Tundras won 12 of the 25 races and locked down the top six spots in points.

It is ironic that Kvapil would be tagged for such duty; he first put Toyota on the map by claiming its first NASCAR national event victory in a trucks race at Michigan in 2004. Now he'll try to knock off the current stable of Toyota talent, led by 2006 champion Todd Bodine. Driving the No. 30 Tundra for Stephen Germain Racing, Bodine will not only be out to become the first trucks champion ever to successfully defend, but to rebound from a somewhat sluggish second-half journey to the title.

In the first nine races of 2006, Bodine won at Atlanta, Madison, Ill., and Texas, also compiling two seconds and two thirds. But not long after that, a new Goodyear tire arrived and his team never quite found the same groove, finishing in the top 10 only three times in the final eight races.

"That threw us for a loop. As the season went on, we thought we had a handle on it, then we didn't, then we did. But we learned some things for this year," Bodine said. "We had a real good test at Daytona, and we're pretty optimistic that we can come out of the box and perform like we did at the beginning of last year."

Also coming out of the Daytona test, Bodine said, was a widespread belief that the Toyotas might have lost a little ground while Ford might have gained some in the aerodynamic battle. NASCAR mandated new versions of trucks from Chevy, Dodge, Ford and Toyota, with all of them becoming identical from the windshield to the rear, allowing officials to use a single template to measure each model. Each manufacturer was allowed to submit a new nose, coming in at 1.5 inches higher than a year ago.

It was a move to create more parity on the track, so stay tuned. Past champions Bodine, Ted Musgrave, Jack Sprague and Mike Skinner all drive Toyotas, while the series' all-time winningest driver, Ron Hornaday Jr., drives a Chevy.

Throw in the Roush Fords and there's every reason to believe this could be a wide-open title chase.

"It has definitely become more competitive. [Toyota] raised the bar on the other manufacturers, and the veteran drivers that we have in the series puts the level way up," Bodine said. "A guy like Travis coming back, he's more than capable of doing it, but you have to be with a good team. He found that out when he went to the Cup Series. He's going to be very competitive here because he has a good team."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to espn.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.