DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Tough Trucks, Tough Drivers, Tough Tools. Now throw Tough Track into the mix. Who will be the winner when the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series makes its inaugural run at Darlington Raceway May 12? While the outcome...
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Tough Trucks, Tough Drivers, Tough Tools. Now throw Tough Track into the mix. Who will be the winner when the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series makes its inaugural run at Darlington Raceway May 12?
While the outcome of the race is anybody's guess, the teams with experience at Darlington will have the upper hand, according to an informal poll of some top Craftsman drivers and crew chiefs.
Over the seven-year history of the Craftsman Truck Series, the schedule has evolved, replacing some of the short tracks and bull rings with bigger, faster superspeedways. Drivers and crew chiefs could draw on their experience at other tracks to look for tips on selecting chassis settings, racing lines and strategies at the new venues. According to the teams, Daytona International Raceway could be likened to Texas Motor Speedway; Dover Downs International Raceway is like a big Bristol Motor Speedway.
Observers could even compare the past performance of the Craftsman Trucks and Winston Cup cars at various tracks to predict qualifying speeds, cautions and winners.
Not so with Darlington, say the men behind the wheels and atop the pit boxes. "Darlington is Darlington," declared Fred Wanke, crew chief for Ted Musgrave, winner of two of four races in 2001. "There's no other place like it. One tight turn and one sweeping turn like Gateway (International Raceway), but high banks like Bristol. There really isn't anything to compare it to."
The key to success at the "Track Too Tough to Tame"? According to Wanke, it's experience. "I've raced there with other series, so I know what to expect, what setup to start with," said the veteran chief mechanic. "If I hadn't been there, I'd be calling a good friend and finding out."
Unlike Wanke, whose driver has logged thousands of laps at the storied race track, crew chief Rick Ren will be running the offense for a Darlington rookie, Travis Kvapil. "Having raced there several times will help me with the setup, to know when to pit," Ren said. "My experience means (I can) prepare the driver for what is going to go on there, teach him how to be in control the whole time." "At Darlington, experience is even more important for the driver," Wanke said. "(Musgrave) has raced there a lot, so we'll have a distinct advantage."
Driver Joe Ruttman, with more than 15 starts at Darlington, concurs. "We have some great rookies in this Series, but I would probably have to say that one of the veteran drivers will be the winner." Ruttman said. "If I were a betting man, I'd say that Ted Musgrave would be hard to beat, but we'll give him a run for the money."
The record at Darlington supports these testimonials for the importance of driver experience: in the last 10 years of Winston Cup racing at the 1.366-mile track, no rookie has gone to Victory Circle. The closest was Jeff Gordon, who won in 1996 when he was three years removed from his rookie season. The Craftsman"Experience Index"
If experience is key, we can handicap the field by counting the number of races at Darlington by the top Craftsman Truck Series drivers and their crew chiefs. With a combined 42 races, Musgrave and Wanke would seem to have the advantage. With more than 30 Winston Cup and Grand National races since 1976, Dennis Connor leads in the crew chief category, but his driver, two-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Champion Jack Sprague, has visited Darlington only twice. Ruttman has at least 15 races at Darlington, but this will be the first time at the helm for his crew chief, Danny Rollins.
There is only one thing certain about the results of the first Craftsman Truck Series race at Darlington Raceway: the winning truck will be the one with the Craftsman decal on the windshield.