AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Darnell Knows It's Time To DeliverErik Darnell admits it is strange to look around the Roush Fenway truck garage and not see his mentors. Mark Martin, the six-time winner in a part-time ride in 2006, is long gone. Travis Kvapil, sixth in points with four wins in his return to truck racing a year ago, moved back to Cup racing. If he's looking for an old hand now, Darnell needs to find a mirror. "It's weird to say, but I'm kind of the veteran over here now," said the third-year driver of the No. 99 Ford. "Now if I have a question, I've got nobody to go to. But I guess at this point of my truck series career, I shouldn't have any questions anymore." Beyond the hot-button topics going into the 2008 Craftsman Truck Series season involving longtime combatants -- Can Ron Hornaday become the first back-to-back champion? How will Jack Sprague fare as his teammate? Will Mike Skinner bounce back from a disastrous end to 2007? -- is one surrounding a 25-year-old who might have a career hanging on the line this year. Will Erik Darnell turn the corner? The Roush Fenway driver won rookie of the year honors in 2006, finishing 12th in points. Last year he won for the first time, in the season's fifth race at Kansas, but outside that didn't make significant progress. He was 12th in points again after a late-season swoon from eighth with six races remaining, and his eight top-10s were down from 12 the prior year. "We struggled at quite a few tracks, places that I didn't really seem to have any problem with my rookie year," Darnell said. "I don't know if you want to call it the sophomore slump or whatever, but I don't think we performed up to our expectations, where we were supposed to. I was really disappointed." Such results were tough to swallow given how teammate Kvapil ran. The 2003 champion (with owner Steve Coulter) returned to trucks with Roush and, after an adjustment period, rattled off four wins during the middle of the year and finished seventh in points. Kvapil drove the No. 6 Ford F-150, which Martin piloted to six wins the year before in a part-time role. "You look at the success of Mark Martin and Kvapil, those guys both won a bunch of races and last year we only won one," Darnell said. This year, however, there won't be anyone more experienced than him in a Roush truck. Rookie Colin Braun is in the No. 6 and newcomer Joey Clanton is in the No. 09. "We've got great expectations after being the junior guy to Mark Martin and Travis Kvapil," Jack Roush said. "This will be his payday year and we expect him to be a factor in the championship battle." Roush is used to his drivers having big success in the truck series and using that as a springboard up the NASCAR food chain. His first of five rookie-of-the-year winners was Greg Biffle in 1998, who would go on to win the truck championship in 2000 before moving to full-time Busch and Cup rides. Kurt Busch, who drove a Roush Cup car for five years before moving to Penske Racing, made his break in a four-win 2000 rookie of the year truck season. In 2003 the award went to Carl Edwards in a three-win season, which he duplicated in 2004. Come 2005, he got his Cup seat. So Darnell knows the possible rewards. He's getting a small taste this year with a small Nationwide Series schedule starting in April in Mexico City. He is slated to run about six races in the No. 17 Fusion, and in Daytona testing last month he posted the fastest time in drafts. "It's something I've wanted to do for a few years, for me it's just going out there and getting some laps and seeing what I can do in a Nationwide car," Darnell said. "In all the tests I've done, everyone's been pretty happy." But how he performs in those races is not likely to define his season. The bosses will be more interested in how his crucial third trucks season progresses. "This is kind of going to be it for me as far as my chance in the trucks. I've got to show Jack why he picked me," Darnell said. "We're going to be the premier Roush team, if you want to call it that, with me being the veteran. We have to go out there every week and we're going to have to be contending for wins and running up front, and we're going to have to be contending for a championship at the end of the year. It's something we've got to take care of." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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