500th Truck Series race marks rich history, bright future of the division

BROOKLYN, MI - AUGUST 16:  Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Great Lakes Flooring/Menards Toyota, races with Joey Logano, driver of the #19 DrawTite Ford, during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Careers For Veterans 200 at Michigan International Speedway on August 16, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

BROOKLYN, MI – AUGUST 16: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Great Lakes Flooring/Menards Toyota, races with Joey Logano, driver of the #19 DrawTite Ford, during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Careers For Veterans 200 at Michigan International Speedway on August 16, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Born to modest beginnings in the American Southwest, NASCAR’s launching pad, otherwise known as the Camping World Truck Series, will celebrate a major milestone on Saturday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

There, shortly after 1 p.m. ET (on FS1), the green flag will signal the start of the 500th race in a series that has provided indispensable impetus to the careers of some of NASCAR’s top stars.

Carl Edwards, for one, recognizes the debt he owes to the series and to long-time owners such as Mike Mittler, who gave Edwards his start in trucks.

“The Truck Series means a lot to me, and it means a lot to my career, for the fact that Mike Mittler has owned a truck since the beginning of the Truck Series,” Edwards said. “If it weren’t for that opportunity from Mike Mittler, and Jack Roush hiring me to drive his trucks, I would not be here today.

“So I’m really grateful for the Truck Series, and I had a lot of fun driving those trucks.”

Edwards won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title in the Truck Series in 2003 before graduating to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney are other former Truck Series Rookie of the Year winners currently racing at NASCAR’s highest level.

The Truck Series has changed markedly since its debut on the national stage at Phoenix International Raceway in 1995, where Mike Skinner, already 38 years old at the time, won the Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic by .09 seconds over Terry Labonte.

In its formative years, the Truck Series was a repository for veteran drivers. Skinner won the first series championship. Ron Hornaday Jr., perhaps the most identifiable name in series history, claimed the title in 1996, the first of his record four championships.

Veterans Hornaday and Jack Sprague were kings of the series from 1996 through 1999 before Biffle won the title in 2000 to advance another rung up the ladder that would take him to the Cup series in short order.

The periodic appearances of Kyle Busch notwithstanding, it’s fair to say that older, more experienced drivers dominated the Truck Series until 2011. Hornaday won his third championship in 2007 and his fourth in 2009, amassing a series-record 51 victories along the way.

Todd Bodine won the second of his two titles in 2010, at age 46, before Dillon and James Buescher notched back-to-back championships in 2011 and 2012 at ages 21 and 22, respectively.

Dillon and Buescher are emblematic of the changing face of the Truck Series, which now features more teenagers and 20-somethings than drivers in their 30s and 40s.

For one thing, team owners like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr., have embraced the Truck Series as an affordable way to give back to the sport by launching the careers of young drivers.

Erik Jones, 19, who drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports, is the current series leader. Tyler Reddick, also 19 and a Brad Keselowski Racing protégé, is second.

“I think the Truck Series is a great division,” Busch said. “It’s certainly a lot of fun. I enjoy it. It’s a level at which I can be competitive owning a race team. …

“This level … I feel it gives us a great chance to bring up the (young) talent to the upper level of NASCAR racing.”

Owning his own team also gives Busch a chance to compete in the occasional race. With 44 victories in the series, he is second only to Hornaday, and he’ll have a chance to move one win closer this weekend at New Hampshire.

“Having its 500th race and being in that race is going to be special for me,” Busch said.

Keselowski is part of the Truck Series’ present and future, but his love for the trucks is rooted in the past. His father, Bob Keselowski, raced in the series debut at Phoenix. Bob Keselowski took his only checkered flag in the series in 1997, and he and Brad remain the only father/son combination to win races in the trucks.

“The Truck Series for me has been a huge part of my career and a huge part of my family from the get-go,” Keselowski said. “My dad ran in the first-ever truck race at Phoenix, and I still remember that day.

“I still remember watching that race, and I remember how big a deal the Truck Series was when it started and how big a deal it is now to young drivers and the future of our sport.”

Two-time defending Truck Series champion Matt Crafton once would have been typical of the series. Now, at 39, he’s a throwback to an earlier era. But Crafton is content to race for wins and titles in the Truck Series, as opposed to driving less competitive equipment at a higher level.

“If I stay here for the rest of my driving career, I’ll definitely be happy with that,” Crafton said. “I know each and every week I can go win races. I have no desire to go somewhere where I’m going to run 15th to 25th and be happy with that.”

A nine-time winner in the Truck Series, Crafton is seeking his first New Hampshire victory this weekend, as he tries to stave off the growing youth movement in the Camping World Truck Series for yet another season.

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