Dennis Setzer anything but comfortable at season's Michigan mid-point DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 28, 2004) -- Despite leading the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series points standings since mid-May, Dennis Setzer (No. 46 Chevrolet Silverado Chevrolet)...
Dennis Setzer anything but comfortable at season's Michigan mid-point
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 28, 2004) -- Despite leading the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series points standings since mid-May, Dennis Setzer (No. 46 Chevrolet Silverado Chevrolet) isn't completely comfortable with his performance.
Setzer believes he can, and, in fact, must do better as the 2004 season heads to this week's halfway point at Michigan International Speedway. He's cognizant of the fact that only three of nine leaders following the mid-season race have gone on to win the championship.
"We're happy to be where we are and to have a couple of wins," said Setzer on the eve of Saturday's Line-X Spray-On Truck Bedliners 200, a race in which he finished eighth in 2003. "But, really, the second half of the season has to improve for us.
"I think we have a great group of guys here but we can run a lot better than we have so far. I don't feel like we have had that dominating race that I know we are capable of." Setzer may feel he's left a few things on the table after 12 races. Still, the 44-year-old North Carolina veteran, last year's runner-up to series champion Travis Kvapil (No. 24 Line-X Toyota), has six top-three finishes.
But Setzer knows a 64-point championship lead is anything but ironclad -- especially with Bobby Hamilton (No. 4 Square D Dodge) in hot pursuit. Hamilton was 163 points off the pace in early June. Two wins and five top-10 finishes reduced the margin to just six points before a late-race accident July 17 at Gateway International Raceway dropped Hamilton from a second-place finish in that event to 17th.
Hamilton isn't the only competitor to enjoy a solid -- if slightly flawed -- first half. Daytona winner Carl Edwards (No. 99 Superchips Ford) has been Setzer's chief rival most of the way, but has slipped with consecutive finishes out of the top-15 following a stirring comeback win July 3 at Kansas Speedway.
"We're ahead of where we were last year at this time," said Edwards, the 2003 Raybestos Rookie of the Year. "For the second half we just need to learn from our mistakes. We have to think about the points a little more now. I need to be patient and still get a good finish rather than push it too hard and end up in the garage."
The pressure on Edwards may be greater from behind than ahead as just 21 points separate third through fifth in the standings. Matt Crafton (GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) and Hamilton teammate Chad Chaffin (No. 18 Dickies Dodge) have been the series' most consistent competitors since June 1.
The fourth-place Crafton, who leads Chaffin by a single point, has strung together six consecutive top- 10 finishes to advance from 11th. Chaffin was 15th before his June 1 victory at Dover International Speedway and hasn't been off the lead lap since a 30th-place run at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 21.
With two top-five finishes in his last three races, Crafton is torn between winning and amassing points.
"Not having that first win yet is something we can't dwell on too much because that could cause us to lose focus elsewhere," he said. "I will be very disappointed if we don't have a win during the second half of the season."
Chaffin will just enjoy a ride that many wouldn't have predicted. "I want to finish this year top five in the points," he said. "The team has already accomplished more than many thought we would this season."
Three series champions -- the most ever to compete on a fulltime basis since the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series began -- have had varying degrees of success.
Jack Sprague (No. 16 Chevy Trucks Chevrolet) has a victory, but two DNFs in the past four races have slowed IWX Racing's bid for a third owner's championship. Bang Racing teammates Kvapil and Mike Skinner (No. 42 Toyota Tundra Toyota) have a second-place finish apiece, but rank seventh and 12th in points, respectively.
"We have had awesome trucks almost every race but then we have had some rotten luck," said Sprague, who lost what appeared to be a sure second-place finish at Gateway to a cut tire and subsequent accident.
"Sometimes you make your own luck but we have just had some freaky things happen, too." Kvapil isn't giving up on a title defense despite trailing Setzer by 273 points. "I still believe that we can win the championship," he said. "I feel good about Toyota at this point of the year. We have been able to get some test and wind tunnel time that we needed to move ahead."
Skinner, the 1995 series champion, just would like to get back into the top 10 -- and stay there.
"There was a time when we were really in contention for the points lead and the championship but we had about three or four weeks there where we were just horrible," Skinner said. "When you have that type of thing happen to you, all you can do is build on your program for next year and that is what we are trying to do now."
Likewise, Toyota's fortunes have been mixed in the truck maker's first season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Tundra teams enjoyed runnerup finishes at Daytona and Atlanta (where they were second, third and fourth) -- raising expectations of a quick victory -- but more recently they've struggled, especially on tracks of a mile or less in length.
The truck maker does boast the leading Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender, David Reutimann, whose No. 17 NTN Bearings Toyota is owned by Darrell Waltrip. Reutimann was third from the Bud Pole in Atlanta and duplicated the finish at Texas Motor Speedway.
"Just getting to Daytona was a highlight considering the uphill battle we faced," said Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development Inc. "Without question, the short track program needs the most work. We have two or three or four drivers that on a regular basis are running pretty well on the mile and a half tracks and bigger. The engine is coming along and that's helping plus we're learning about the aero part of the truck."
"Everyone was optimistic that we'd at least pick up a win by now," he said. "Now it's 'grind it out time.' "
Dodge, with five wins, holds a single point lead over Chevrolet, a four-time winner. Ford is 13 points back in third on the strength of three victories while Toyota occupies the final spot, 32 points behind the leader. There have been eight different winners -- among them first-time winner Chaffin -- over the season's first 12 events.