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Sports

Trucks have found a niche in NASCAR world

June 3rd, 2011 8:03 am by Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ron Hornaday Jr. won the pole for the very first NASCAR Camping Truck series race. He won the second race.

He also won the 100th, the 300th and the 350th.

And on Saturday afternoon at Kansas Speedway, Hornaday will take part in the 400th race in truck series history in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 250.

"That was the change in my life," said Hornaday, who broke into NASCAR driving in the then-Craftsman Truck Series for the late Dale Earnhardt. "Dale gave me that phone call, I moved my family to North Carolina ... I made my name there."

Since the formation of the truck series, Hornaday had won a series-most 47 races — including Kansas in 2008 and Heartland Park Topeka in the inaugural 1995 season — and four series championships.

His milestone wins were the 100th at Evergeen, Wash.; the 300th at Dover; and the 350th at Texas.

"When it first started, every Cup owner got involved in it," Hornaday said, explaining the staying power of the series. "They had a five-year plan, and in the first year, they surpassed their plan. Look at the tracks they're going to now. Trucks weren't supposed to go over a mile racetrack, and now, we're going, 1.5 mile, 2 mile, 2.5 mile racetracks."

Indeed, the series has outgrown its roots, moving from short tracks such as I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo., and road courses such as Heartland Park Topeka to the super speedways of Daytona and Talladega as well as the other stops on the Sprint Cup circuit.

The idea for the truck series was hatched by a group of four men led by Jim Smith, who had done some research in 1993 and discovered there were 65,000 Ford Thunderbirds on the road compared with 650,000 Ford F-150 pickups.

The market was there. They built a Sprint Cup car on a truck body and after testing it in Bakersfield, Calif., they took it to Daytona Beach, Fla., in February 1994 and displayed it during Speedweeks.

NASCAR executives were impressed, and CEO Bill France initiated a 20-race schedule, expanded it to 27 races in 1998, and it's settled into a 25-race format today.

Originally, the trucks were seen as developmental series for young drivers to gain experience before moving on to the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. And to a degree, it accomplished that goal.

That's how Jack Roush discovered an unknown Carl Edwards, who finished eighth in a 2002 truck race at Kansas Speedway driving for Mike Mittler of St. Louis.

"If it weren't for the trucks series I wouldn't be here," said Edwards, a 19-time winner in the Cup series and current points leader. "Mike Mittler reluctantly hired me to drive his truck. I ran seven races for Mike, so if NASCAR hadn't come up with the truck series and guys like myself didn't get those opportunities, this sport would look a lot different today.

"One of my biggest wins in my career, hands down, was the truck win at Kansas in 2004. ... It was the only time in my career I couldn't hear my engine because of the crowd noise."

While the truck series still provides opportunities for young drivers, many of the veteran drivers who did not enjoy a lot of success in the Nationwide or Cup series have returned to the trucks and found a comfort level.

There's less pressure in the trucks series than in the cut-throat Cup competition, and some of the older drivers, like Ron Hornaday, 1995 champion Mike Skinner and 2006 and 2010 champion Todd Bodine like a 25-race schedule with Sundays off compared with the 36-race Cup grind .

"You've seen guys go straight from Trucks to Cup and be successful," said Andy Houston, a former driver in the series and now spotter for Ty Dillon. "You've seen guys go from the Trucks to Nationwide and be successful. ... You come in as a young guy and you get to go to all the venues the Cup cars do."

Several of Sprint Cup's biggest stars still run in the truck series when schedules permit. Kyle Busch, a two-time winner in the Cup series this year, owns his own truck team and will aim for his fifth truck win in seven starts on Saturday at Kansas Speedway. Cup regular Clint Bowyer of Emporia also will start in Saturday's race.

"The series looks great to me," Hornaday said. "It's probably the hardest racing we've ever had. When the green flag drops, anybody in the top 20 can win these races."

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