Trucks Face Challenge in 1999

Trucks face exciting challenge in '99 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 25, 1999) Weight. Aerodynamic instability. Huge doses of horsepower. Challenging race tracks. Some of the highest-octane competitors on four wheels. Combine the above, and more,...

Trucks face exciting challenge in '99

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 25, 1999) Weight. Aerodynamic instability. Huge doses of horsepower. Challenging race tracks. Some of the highest-octane competitors on four wheels.

Combine the above, and more, and you get the "Tough Trucks and Fast Drivers" of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which presents its fifth season and 100th race in 1999.

This year's campaign kicks off Saturday, March 20 with the Florida Dodge Dealers 400 at the Miami-Homestead Speedway. The race will be broadcast at 4 p.m. (EST) by ABC Television.

The tour for American-manufactured pickup trucks still may be NASCAR's "new kid on the block," having run its first race in February 1995. But from the very beginning, when Mike Skinner passed two-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Terry Labonte in the last turn of the final lap to win the tour inaugural, it's been obvious the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series would be fast, rugged and exciting.

Skinner beat Labonte to the checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway by just 0.09-second. And, in 56 of 95 subsequent finishes (under the green flag), the margin of victory has been less than a second.

That's a solid 60 percent.

And, often as not, those hair-breath finishes have been punctuated by the metal-on-metal, bumper clanging action that has made NASCAR the fastest growing professional sport in America.

"In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, you know that as soon as the green flag drops, there is going to be a lot of beating and banging," said Randy Tolsma, a former open-wheel champion who won his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race in 1997 at Bakersfield, Calif. "The division has thrived on the rugged, door-to-door action that the drivers provide and the fans love.

"You can't go to places like Bristol, Bakersfield or Louisville and not expect to see some crumpled fenders. The teams prepare the truck so that it will be able to withstand the punishment and still be there at the end."

"They're tough. That's what trucks are supposed to be," said Kevin Harvick, who has moved over to Liberty Racing's Porter-Cable Power Tools Ford in 1999.

"They are built tough and rigid," said Terry Cook, driver of the Sealmaster PBA Tour Chevrolet driver who won in 1998 at Flemington (N.J.) Speedway. "We add another front bumper to withstand the bumping and grinding during a race. We typically plan on replacing both truck sides after a short track race."

Concludes Greg Biffle, a race car builder in addition to being last season's rookie-of-the-year driving Roush Racing's Grainger Ford, "The trucks have tall, flat sides so they can handle the bumping and rubbing better than NASCAR Busch Series or NASCAR Winston Cup Series cars. Trucks can tolerate more contact than the cars, so we have more (body contact) and that makes the truck races tougher to drive and makes for tough racing."

A NASCAR Craftsman Truck is nearly identical, in principle, to a NASCAR Winston Cup Series car -- fabricated frame and roll cage, 3,400 pounds in weight, and 358 cubic inch displacement V8 engine with 700 horsepower. A truck, based on half-ton Chevrolet, Dodge or Ford vehicles, is taller than the car, with a two-inch longer wheelbase.

And the truck body is far less aerodynamic than the Chevrolets, Fords and Pontiacs raced in NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Therein lies the challenge - to teams and drivers, alike, especially on longer ovals where speeds can exceed 180 mph.

"It's like pushing a box into a 200 mph wind," comments Stacy Compton, a two-time winner in 1998 for the Royal Crown Cola team, which switches from Ford to Dodge this season.

"A truck is a like a refrigerator on wheels," says Cook. "It's like comparing (the handling of) a truck and a sports car."

"They don't dig into the pavement going into the corners," adds Mike Bliss, who has won at least one race in each of the tour's first four seasons and joins Roush Racing to drive the Exide Batteries Ford in 1999. "They sort of slide through and want to get loose."

Kevin Cywinski, a veteran late model driver and 1997 American Speed Association champion, has had to change both style and strategy since joining the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with Brevak Racing's Auto Trim Design Ford.

"The trucks are heavier and the radial tires don't let you throw them around as much as you could a lighter car with bias-ply tires," says Cywinski. "This, along with aerodynamics, makes (the truck) a lot tougher to handle." NASCAR drivers, however, thrive on challenge.

So it isn't surprising that top established veterans like Joe Ruttman and Jimmy Hensley have made a home in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague, winners of three of the tour's first four championships, have graduated from NASCAR's Winston Racing Series and NASCAR Touring to star in the series.

Mike Skinner, now a top NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver, used his 1995 NCTS championship to reach NASCAR's "big show," as did Kenny Irwin, who finished third in the 1999 Daytona 500.

The tour also is home to such rising stars as the 23-year-old Harvick; Bliss; Biffle; Compton, Cook; Tolsma, Rick Crawford and Andy Houston. Veteran NASCAR drivers Butch Miller, Rick Carelli, Bryan Reffner and Mike Wallace also contend for victory throughout the season.

"The competition level is so tough - just like the NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Winston Cup Series - the drivers, the equipment and the teams are so good that it evens the playing field," says Biffle.

"There are so many drivers that have won championships in other divisions and other series," comments Compton. "They bring so much talent into the series ... (and) you have to learn each individual's style. Tough competition!"

Miller, who drives for Bobby Hamilton's new DANA Corporation-sponsored Dodge team in 1999 and is a veteran of both NASCAR Winston Cup and NASCAR Busch Series competition, sees it this way: "We don't have names like Earnhardt and Labonte but we have the same talent and our drivers are becoming just as big."

"If you put us in IROC cars, Hornaday is going to run as good as the Cup guys," contends Wallace, who switches from Ken Schrader Racing to Ultra Motorsports' Team ASE Ford in 1999.

"Sprague will, too, and so will I. It's just as tough to win in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series against Sprague and Hornaday as it is in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series against Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt."

"Over the years, I've been involved with people who are very intense and very set on their goals," said Ron Barfield, driver of the No. 55 Icehouse Beer Ford for Gloy-Rahal Racing. "In this series, I'd say there are a lot of drivers out there like that. Everybody wants to win and that's the name of the game."

Suggests Houston, whose Addington Racing Chevrolet will wear The Cat Rental Stores colors in 1999, "When drivers from other series come to run our races, they don't dominate. In fact, most of them struggle to keep up."

Then there is the NASCAR Winston Cup Series influence. Hornaday drives a truck owned and prepared by Dale Earnhardt Inc.; Sprague for Hendrick Motorsports; Jay Sauter for Richard Childress; Biffle and Bliss for Roush, rookie Scott Hansen for Schrader and Hensley for Richard Petty.

That, obviously, raises the bar to a very high level.

"You have drivers like Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague. That's hard enough to deal with," concludes Harvick. "But then you have to realize that you have to compete with teams like Roush, Hendrick, Childress and Earnhardt.

"Those are the big boys of NASCAR, right there."

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Truck
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Hamilton , Terry Labonte , Mike Skinner , Ken Schrader , Greg Biffle , Jay Sauter , Andy Houston , Stacy Compton , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Jack Sprague , Terry Cook , Rick Crawford , Joe Ruttman , Richard Petty , Bryan Reffner , Jimmy Hensley , Rick Carelli , Ron Barfield , Butch Miller , Mark Martin , Scott Hansen