Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com
Tracking the Trucks: Kroger 250
In a Nutshell: Johnny Sauter took the lead on the final restart of the race to take home his second win of 2013, his second at Martinsville, and his eighth overall. ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton squeezed by a fading Jeb Burton to finish second. Timothy Peters and Darrell Wallace, Jr. rounded out the top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Jeb Burton. Burton was the class of the field in the Arrowhead Chevrolet from the moment the trucks unloaded in Martinsville, running at the top of the charts in practice, qualifying on the pole, and leading the most laps en route to a third-place finish. It was, perhaps, Burton’s inexperience as much as a loose, fading truck that kept him from Victory Lane; Sauter and Crafton, both series veterans, simply made Burton use his truck up at the end. Still, Burton proved that he’s going to be a factor in this series in 2013.
Welcome to the newest addition to Tracking the Trucks! In this section for each race, we’ll take a look at the most important things to know just in case you weren’t able to watch it.
A Solid Crowd: While the grandstands weren’t full at Martinsville, the paid attendance was sizable (Note: In 2013, NASCAR no longer gives crowd estimates). It appears that short track racing is alive and well in the hearts of race fans, and a picture perfect spring day no doubt helped at the gate. Fans are going to see an outstanding race at this track every time out… and it’s good to see them respond to that.
The Inside Groove: Martinsville is a one-groove track the vast majority of the time. Getting caught on the outside if the truck isn’t hooked up exactly right can cost a driver position after position. The outside groove is a killer getting into the corners, where Ron Hornaday, Jr. lost the lead. But it’s also where Johnny Sauter “got it” down the stretch, accelerating perfectly through the final restart. If you see someone do that, you know they’ve got their truck working well…
Rookie Mistake?: While battling for the lead on Turns 3 and 4 on lap 103, Rookie Jeb Burton got into the back of veteran Ron Hornaday, Jr. Burton had worked his way up from sixth on the previous restart by driving with patience, and it appeared that he held his line. Burton said as much on his team radio, saying that Hornaday moved to block him on the backstretch. It was likely more a case of Burton not quite knowing when to back out and Hornaday trying to take away his line, though. The former Truck champion has been around long enough to know the ropes of racing with inexperienced drivers; he didn’t throw a dirty block. What the incident did, more than anything was showcase the talent in this series. Hornaday is the best driver in series history, but Burton is its future. This week, they collided.
Hornaday’s Still Got it: Ron Hornaday, Jr. is a veteran of 16 CWTS seasons, 323 races, and a series-best 51 wins to go with four series titles. He’s a likely Hall of Famer for his accomplishments as the best of the best in this series… but Hornaday, who will end this season at 55 years of age, is far from done. Though he’s struggled with inferior equipment the last couple of years, Hornaday showed this weekend that he hasn’t lost his edge. He was fast in practice, qualified ninth, and, after slicing and dicing with Kevin Harvick for the top spot, was leading the race by lap 100 before getting spun by Burton. Hornaday didn’t add a second grandfather clock to his impressive trophy collection, though he did rebound impressively to finish tenth for the 216th top 10 of his career. Everyone knew he was there, and it’s likely the No. 9 team is poised for a run at the championship.
“Happy Birthday to me!” Johnny Sauter delivered crew chief Joe Shear a win for his birthday as Sauter took home his second win to make it a perfect 2013 through two races so far. After a 2012 marked by bad luck, Sauter is showing the strength of his ThorSport team, winning at the high-banked superspeedway at Daytona and now the flat half-mile in Martinsville. Sauter is one of those drivers, like Hornaday and Todd Bodine who barely made a ripple in Sprint Cup cars but who have made a huge splash in the Truck Series. Martinsville marks Sauter’s eighth career CWTS win. He’s also finished in the top ten in points every year since 2009, when he first raced the series full-time. He joins Mark Martin (2006) as the only two drivers to open a CWTS season with back-to-back victories.
Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself After This One
1. Just how deep is the young talent in this series?
NASCAR fans need to be paying attention to the Trucks over the next few years. The race at Martinsville made it clear just how much talent there is among the youngsters right now. Not only is there last year’s Rookie of the Year, Ty Dillon, who’s on a four-year track to the Cup Series, but there’s a gaggle of young guns waiting to share some of the spotlight.
Jeb Burton was the best of the newcomers on Saturday, but he’s hardly the only one whose name is going to be remembered after this year. Darrell Wallace, Jr. started on the front row and finished fifth. A pair of high school students, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones, made their series debuts and finished sixth and ninth, respectively.
And here’s the thing. If all of these youngsters make it to Sprint Cup and have great careers, it would be good for the sport. But if one or two choose to make a career in the Truck Series, it would be even better. One thing that makes this series some of the best racing you’ll see anywhere is the veterans who have found their niche and chosen to make the CWTS a career.
2. Is it time for a schedule revamp for this series?
While the race at Daytona was a thriller, the CWTS was designed to showcase the trucks at tracks more like Martinsville: tough, physical places not unlike pickup trucks themselves. The racing at Martinsville is always exciting because the drivers can really lean on each other; unless someone runs dead last all day, nobody is coming home with a pristine bumper. Short track racing is the roots of all stock car competition, but nowhere is it as apparent as in this series.
So why not capitalize on that? NASCAR has done a better job of adding a variety of tracks this year, with a road course and particularly with the dirt track at Eldora, but the series needs more tracks like Eldora and Martinsville. Letting Lucas Oil Raceway Park (formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) fall off the schedule was a bad move. Adding Rockingham only partly made up for that. These trucks can race so much more physically than their Nationwide and Sprint Cup brethren, but that’s dangerous and costly on the mile-and-a-half tracks.
This series should be running at South Boston, Myrtle Beach, and the other tracks that once had a place in the sport. Yes, they’d need SAFER barriers (no track should be allowed NOT to have them), and I would behoove NASCAR greatly to set up a fund to help fund such projects through grants or loans. In the long run, returning the trucks and even the Nationwide cars to the sport’s roots could well help it grow into its future.
Truck Rookie Report
2013 Rookie of the Year Candidates:
Ryan Blaney (No. 29)
Jeb Burton (No. 4)
Brennan Newberry (No. 14)
German Quiroga, Jr. (No. 77)
Ryan Truex (No. 30)
Darrell Wallace, Jr. (No. 54)
No. of Rookies in the Race: 11 (Ryan Truex did not race; add Kenny Habul based on just three previous starts; five drivers made their CWTS debuts: Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Devin Jones, Grant Galloway, and Robert Bruce)
No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 4; Jeb Burton (3rd), Darrell Wallace, Jr. (5th), Chase Elliott (6th), Erik Jones (9th)
Rookie of the Race: Jeb Burton
Rookie Quotes: “I knew if I won or got the pole, I’m going to be emotional — anywhere, especially here. Like I said, it means something to me. I live it. I eat it. I sleep it. It’s just a passion of mine and I’m just thankful to be in front of you all right now.” - Jeb Burton (won the pole; finished 3rd)
“That last set of tires we put on, we had to start at the back of the field, but we got lucky and started on the bottom and drove back up in the top 10. We were running sixth and got rooted off the bottom and fell back to ninth, but I can’t complain with it being my first race and getting a top 10 out of it! Happy to come home with the truck in one piece and ready to head to Rockingham.” -Erik Jones (finished 9th) on his CWTS debut
Johnny Sauter holds the points lead, as you would think after opening the season two-for-two. He opened his margin to an even dozen points over rookie Jeb Burton, who’s there on the strength of a pair of top-5 finishes.
Sauter’s teammate Matt Crafton sits third, 17 points back of Sauter. Ron Hornaday, Jr. is fourth, and Darrell Wallace, Jr. sits fifth, 22 behind.
Ryan Sieg, Todd Bodine, Ty Dillon, Miguel Paludo, and Ryan Blaney round out the top 10.
Bad racing luck to open the season has defending series champion James Buescher mired in 12th, 32 points back — certainly not an insurmountable margin, but without a points reset late in the season, and early deficit can be damaging if Buescher and Co. can’t right the ship.
It may be too early to call a title favorite, but ThorSport is certainly making a bid to be on the list in a few weeks when the championship picture becomes clearer. Despite Buescher’s slow start, Turner Scott Motorsports is also making a bid to be a series powerhouse this year with Burton and Paludo already inside the top 10.
“I tried to time it right, and that’s the key. So proud of everybody on this Carolina Nut Company/Curb Records Toyota - everybody at TRD, Triad Racing Motors, all of our sponsors and guys at the shop, they have been working really, really hard. It was a long day. My Wife and son are here and it’s the first win for him. Just proud of everybody - Duke and Rhonda Thorson, Mike Curb, and everybody that helps with this Toyota. Two (wins) for starting out - this is unbelievable!” - Johnny Sauter, race winner
“We had a terrible truck on the first run. We almost went a lap down. That just says never say die that this Menards ThorSport team has. We saved our set of tires there to the end and it was go time. It was great for Johnny and them to be over in Victory Lane, but man, I thought we were going to have something for him and I was just a little too free on that last run to try and run him down. It was one heck of a show hopefully.” - Matt Crafton, finished second
“Coming into today we had our work cut out for us but I knew we had a great truck during practice so we just needed to stay patient throughout the day. We were able to spend much of the day inside the top five, and I thought we really had a truck that could contend for the win. Unfortunately, the last set of tires didn’t take well to our setup. Overall, I felt the whole Rheem team had a great day; I’m looking forward to getting on to Rockingham where I know we can contend for the win.” - James Buescher (finished 14th)
“I’ve had five or six weeks off, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the go-kart track up in Mooresville with Ryan Blaney and Drew Herring. Whatever keeps me un-bored… I’d say throw a race in there - maybe one or two, I don’t know. I know I was pretty bored. You have guys like Kyle (Larson) that are running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday when he’s off. That’s kind of hard to compete with. Like I said, I can find something I can do, racing or shopping carts around Wal-Mart — you find something to keep you entertained. I’d say one or two (races) in there. It would be cool to go back to California after seeing that Cup race.” - Darrell Wallace, Jr. (finished 5th) on the six-week break between Daytona and Martinsville
Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series makes a rare Sunday appearance on April 14th at Rockingham Speedway. The race, scheduled for 2:00 PM ET, will be televised on SPEED; it can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiriusXM Channel 90.