Time To Shine: McFarland Steps Up To Nascar Craftsman Truck Series Reigning NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series Champion to Make Season Debut in Martinsville DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 7, 2004) -- As NASCAR's grassroots series for short track racers, the...
Time To Shine: McFarland Steps Up To Nascar Craftsman Truck Series
Reigning NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series Champion to Make Season Debut in Martinsville
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 7, 2004) -- As NASCAR's grassroots series for short track racers, the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series is home to literally thousands of aspiring drivers across the nation. Only a select few earn the distinction of "NASCAR Champion" and move up the racing ranks.
One driver, in particular, has done just that. At the age of 25, he collected the largest post-season prize in the history of NASCAR weekly racing -- $213,500 -- after winning 24 out of 35 Late Model races he entered last season. Now, he's ready to take the next step.
While Randy LaJoie piloted the No. 59 Dodge for the first two events, McFarland has spent the past two months working in the team's race shop, preparing trucks for competition and assisting with odd jobs wherever needed. It's an approach that has impressed team members and one that may ultimately pay off once he takes the wheel.
"That's what I wanted to do when I came down here, was to get to know everybody in the shop and work with them all week long," said McFarland. "It's been a big help getting to know the trucks and learning everything I can. We went to Daytona and Atlanta with Randy LaJoie and I learned a lot of stuff from him. He's been helping me out a lot -- telling me what to do and what not to do. He's been a real big help."
LaJoie is scheduled to serve as McFarland's spotter at Martinsville and advice from the two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion will only add to the team's potential.
McFarland has ample experience with Martinsville's 0.526-mile oval. One of his three previous NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts came at Martinsville in October 2003, when he finished a respectable 15th. In addition, McFarland has competed in the track's Bailey's 300, the biggest NASCAR Late Model race of the year, on two previous occasions, including a fourth-place run in 2003.
After Martinsville, the team plans to run a minimum of 10 races with McFarland as the driver, but could extend that to a full season, according to crew chief Greg Conner -- himself a veteran of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series at Virginia's Langley Speedway.
"It's going to be a pretty exciting year," said McFarland. "I've had a few shots at this before, running a few NASCAR Busch Series races here, and a couple of Craftsman Truck Series races there. But I never had a full program ahead of me, where we could grow, make changes and make it better. It's always been a one-shot deal and this way, it's going to be a lot better for me and for everyone. It's just a great opportunity for me."
A lot has changed for McFarland in the past several months. He has become a hot NASCAR property since winning his NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series championship, and he has relocated from Virginia to Mooresville, N.C. to pursue his dream.
"What [Dodge] has done with the Weekly Series is awesome," said McFarland. "Everybody knows you as the national champion so when you show up somewhere, everybody knows all about you. It's been -- I don't know how to explain it -- I feel like I've won the NEXTEL Cup. When you show up at a track, everybody's watching you and it makes you feel pretty confident."
Conner says confidence will be a key to McFarland's success at Martinsville -- and beyond.
"Obviously, he's not just somebody who learned how to get around one little track somewhere," said Conner. "He can adapt to the trucks. I'm really looking forward to Martinsville because Mark has run well there and he has confidence there.
"That's going to be the biggest thing, it to make sure he keeps his confidence up. The equipment is a little better than we had [at Martinsville] last year and the motors are a little better. I think all of that is going to translate into Mark being a solid contender. I think he'll have the type of impact that Carl Edwards and Jon Wood had last year when they came in. I think he'll do just as well as they did last year."
Conner and team owner Jim Harris had their eyes on McFarland as early as September 2003, when he made his Craftsman Truck Series debut at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. After starting 22nd, McFarland finished 12th -- a solid run that caught the attention of several Craftsman Truck Series teams.
"Obviously, he has good credentials," said Conner. "Last year, I watched Mark at Richmond and kept up with what they were doing. I know they didn't have good equipment -- it was average at best -- and he actually was driving it better than average equipment. It was the best that truck had ever been run. That caught my attention.
"Since he's been here, he's very energetic and very willing to learn. He wanted to come here and work in the shop, which is impressive to me. Most guys think they're just great drivers. Mark wanted to learn what's going on with the truck which I think is going to help him. He usually helps us with the setups and that's good because I can explain the stuff as we go along. When he feels something, as a driver, he may remember something we did during the setup that translates into something that can help us."
Conner, who returns as the team's crew chief for the second year, says McFarland has adapted quickly to the 3,400-pound Craftsman Truck Series trucks, which are 300 pounds heavier than Late Model Stock Cars.
"At one point during Daytona testing, we were the fastest truck during practice," said Conner. "We put Mark in it and he didn't hesitate a bit," said Conner. "It took him about three laps to get a feel for it -- he'd never been on anything that big. Two or three laps after that, he was running within a tenth [of a second] of the best laps we had run. On superspeedways, you have to be able to hold it wide open, you have to hit your marks, hold your line and avoid the bumps. There are a lot of little nuances that he learned in about 10 laps, which is impressive."
While many drivers have advanced from the Weekly Series into NASCAR's three national series -- a March 2004 survey revealed more than 60 drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck Series who began their careers in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series -- McFarland becomes the second national champion driver to advance directly into national series competition after winning the title. In this distinction, McFarland joins Mike Alexander, who won the national championship in 1983 and moved up to NASCAR's premier series in '84.
The Harris Trucking team's connection to the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series is nothing new. Former team drivers Stacy Compton and Robert Pressley were both NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series star competitors -- Compton at Big Daddy's South Boston (Va.) Speedway in the early 1990s and Pressley winning back-to-back NASCAR regional championships in 1987-88. Harris Trucking also sponsors a Late Model Stock Car team at Concord (N.C.) Motorsport Park.
Along with his Craftsman Truck Series schedule with the Harris Trucking team, McFarland will also appear in three NASCAR Busch Series races -- at Richmond (May 14), Lowe's Motor Speedway (May 29) and Dover International Speedway (June 5) -- as part of Unilever Bestfoods' and Tommy Baldwin Racing's "Hungry Drivers" program.