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Thursday, November 6, 2008
Behind every championship Truck driver is a championship crew chief

By John Schwarb
Special to ESPN.com

AP Photo/US Presswire

While Rick Ren, left, calls the shots for Ron Hornaday Jr., Trip Bruce has Johnny Benson in a groove.

Championship crew chiefs find perfect fit with their drivers

This relationship wouldn't have worked a decade ago. Rick Ren and Ron Hornaday Jr. can agree on that.

Both were successful in the Craftsman Truck Series in the circuit's infancy, as Hornaday was winning championships in 1996 and 1998 and Ren was winning a handful of races with multiple drivers. Each thought he had the other pegged -- Hornaday saw Ren as a mullet perpetually stuck in a notebook; Ren figured Hornaday was a roughneck who wasn't about to compromise his no-holds-barred driving style for another guy's setups.

"Yeah, both guys were kind of stubborn," Ren recalled.

Go figure. Today, they're perfect together.

The Kevin Harvick Inc. duo won a championship last year and is in the closest battle in series history for another, trailing Bill Davis Racing's Johnny Benson and crew chief Trip Bruce by six points with two races remaining.

Hornaday and Benson are headliners as drivers. They have championship résumés (Benson won a Nationwide title in 1995) and a combined 11 wins this year alone in the Truck series. But behind their successes stand a pair of crew chiefs equally at the top of their games, albeit with different approaches for getting their drivers to Victory Lane.

Ren is the second-winningest crew chief in series history with 21 wins among five drivers. He broke a tie with Randy Goss last week at Texas when Hornaday won. He is renowned in the Truck garage for meticulous note-taking, a habit that Hornaday needles him over but knows is a big part of his success in the No. 33 Chevrolet.

"I like somebody who makes decisions quick -- he's a guy that will not make the wrong decision," Hornaday said. "He's going to study his notes, he's going to make the right decision, and you can believe in it. So when you get in that truck, you can hold it wide open because he's definitely studied it and he knows what the change is going to do. As long as I tell him the right things about what the truck is doing, he's going to fix it."

Benson holds Bruce in the same esteem. Like Hornaday and Ren, the Bill Davis Racing No. 23 pair began working together at the start of last season, and with nine wins, the validation of that pairing's success has come often.

"On a personal level, we just seemed to have the same views on everything when it came to racing," said Bruce, 41, a previous race winner in the series with Ultra Motorsports in 2004 working with Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. "Johnny's a car guy, he knows about chassis, he can build them, he can work on them. I'm the same way, a machinist, fabricator, pretty good mechanic, body man, I used to paint, all that stuff. He's the same way, so it clicked real quick."

Bruce says he takes a simple approach to setups on Benson's Toyotas, figuring that of the "one thousand different things to adjust on these NASCAR vehicles," he has to keep the focus to a small fraction.

"I take and put things in an average position, then go test it one at a time," Bruce said. "I limit what I have to adjust and I know what each one of those things do, which helps."

He sees the way Ren attacks setups and can't be the same way, vowing that he's not a good enough stenographer to pull historical data.

"I pay attention out there, I can tell he's a note-taker. He's a Larry McReynolds [former crew chief and current television analyst]. I worked with him, and if a fly flew by 6 feet off the ground, he'd write it down about how high it was flying. To him, it means something," Bruce said.

"Rick gets a curveball, he looks up some notes and sees where that curveball came from six years ago, and he does that. I get a curveball thrown at me, and I limit those adjustments down to, say, five things, and I know what they all do. There's less notes to take when you have less things to think about."

Ren, who at 51 is about a year older than his driver, prides himself on being an old-style racer who is also caught up on present-day equipment. He figures it's a perfect fit with an old-style racer who is caught up on, well, none of it.

"The deal is now, [Hornaday] knows nothing about the race trucks. He doesn't know the setup, he doesn't even know what truck we're bringing," Ren said. "He doesn't ask, he doesn't care 'cause they're fast and we're very successful like we are. He just wants to drive them."

That gives Ren the freedom to make a decision and Hornaday to just trust him, even if his driver instincts say otherwise. The most recent example came last week at Texas, when a truck about to go a lap down was transformed into a winner on one pit stop.

"He made an adjustment on the track bar that I thought was totally backwards," Hornaday recalled. "But he sees the way I drive and he actually made the call by lowering the track bar, which should tighten the truck up. But he had a different deal with tightening the truck up that made it aerodynamically better.

"He does everything. He made the adjustment and made that truck fly."

If one in-race adjustment is the difference in this championship, Hornaday and Benson are both in good hands.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

Standings

Two to go -- Phoenix up first

Ron Hornaday Jr.

Hornaday

Ron Hornaday Jr. has faced this situation before. A year ago, it was a 57-point deficit to Mike Skinner with two races remaining. Because he overcame that for his third Truck series title, perhaps a six-point gap to Johnny Benson doesn't seem as daunting.

He has a chance to erase the deficit on Friday if the No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet he's bringing to Phoenix International Raceway is as good as it was in previous appearances this season. The same truck that Hornaday used to win at the short, flat tracks of Gateway (Ill.) and New Hampshire in back-to-back weeks in September will be hauled to the 1-mile Phoenix oval.

On the other hand, Benson won at Phoenix in 2006, and among his five wins this year are triumphs at the Milwaukee Mile and Nashville, a relatively flat 1.333-mile track.

It's still anyone's guess as to how all this will shake out.

Benson-BDR picture gets clearer

Johnny Benson

Benson

Regardless of what transpires during the final two weeks of the championship chase, Johnny Benson appears finished in the Bill Davis Racing No. 23 Toyota.

"It basically stands that I won't be at Bill's," Benson said Wednesday on Sirius Radio, adding that he is unsure of his 2009 plans.

Tayler Malsam might not take Benson's No. 23, but he will pilot a BDR Toyota full time in 2009. Malsam, 19, is moving from the ARCA Series to Trucks.

Mike Skinner is signed to drive the No. 5 for another season, and Brian Scott will run the full schedule next year in the No. 16. Plans have not been announced for the No. 22, which has been driven by three drivers, including Scott Speed, a winner in May at Dover, Del.

Toyota on top, again

Kyle Busch's second-place finish at Texas in a Billy Ballew Motorsports Tundra Toyota won the Truck Series Manufacturers' championship for Toyota for the third consecutive year.

Toyota, also the top brand in the Nationwide Series this year, has won 12 of 23 races this year and more than half -- 37 of 73 -- of all races since 2006. Toyota won a driver's championship in 2006 with Germain Racing and Todd Bodine, finished second in points last season with Bill Davis Racing's Mike Skinner and will finish no worse than second this year with BDR's Johnny Benson.

"When we entered the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, we knew that our success would be a product of the teams and people we aligned ourselves with to carry the Toyota banner," said Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. "To win a third straight manufacturers' championship in this highly competitive series is a testament to the hard work and dedication of all our race teams and everyone at TRD and Triad."

Spare parts

TJ Bell's streak of five consecutive top-10s, the longest active in the series coming into Texas, ended abruptly with a Lap 2 crash on Friday. … Kevin Harvick will drive the KHI No. 2 Chevrolet at Phoenix, where he won in 2002-03 when his Truck team was in its infancy. … If preliminary entry lists hold true, Phoenix should feature a full 36-truck field, the 11th full field in 24 events this season.