Trucks cut costs right out of the gate
You know the economy is bad when defending Truck Series champion Johnny Benson -- the reigning three-time most popular driver -- can't even secure sponsorship.
The Camping World Truck Series doesn't own the market for struggling motorsports. Far from it.
But it could be the first series to implement cost-saving measures that will directly impact how teams go from flag to flag on race day.
When the season begins Friday night at Daytona International Speedway, take note of trucks driving into their pit stalls for service and taking only tires or gas, not both. That's no longer just race strategy -- it's a rule.
Few rides were left unchanged over the offseason in the Camping World Truck Series -- even defending champion Johnny Benson's -- and some of the series' best drivers are still looking for a home. Here's a look at the moves among last year's top 15:
Johnny Benson (first in 2008)
Remains in a Toyota but now it's the No. 1 of Red Horse Racing after Bill Davis Racing closed.
Erik Darnell (fourth)
Promoted by Roush Fenway Racing to part-time Nationwide Series seat. RFR unlikely to run No. 99 Ford this year.
Mike Skinner (sixth)
Another casualty of folded Bill Davis Racing, took Toyota backing to Randy Moss Motorsports, formerly a Chevrolet team.
Dennis Setzer (eighth)
Without a ride. His 2008 Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia team folded, and a potential part-time job for the 18-time race winner evaporated earlier this month.
Jack Sprague (ninth)
Without a ride. Three-time champion was released late last season by Kevin Harvick Inc. and drove final five races for Wyler Racing.
Chad McCumbee (11th)Drove in 2006-2007 with SS-Greenlight Racing and is returning to the No. 07 Chevy for at least 12 races while hoping to land sponsorship for full season.
David Starr (12th)
Former Red Horse Racing driver taking over HT Motorsports No. 24 Toyota, teaming with Terry Cook (10th in points last year).
Brendan Gaughan (15th)
Leaving Circle Bar Racing for full-time Nationwide season with Rusty Wallace Inc. Eighteen-year-old rookie James Buescher will drive the No. 10 Circle Bar Ford.
The Truck Series, straining to keep vehicle counts up as sponsorships and teams evaporate in the bleak economy, is implementing NASCAR's most aggressive cost-cutting plan. The series followed Sprint Cup and Nationwide in a testing ban, but in recent weeks it has added engine-use restrictions, at-the-track team staffing limits and, most notably, a limit on over-the-wall pit crew and what they can do on one stop.
"I'm pleased with what they've done; it's just that there's no real magic piece that's going to make it all come back around," Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach said.
"It's more expensive to run now than it was several years ago. We've all kind of progressed down that path, and it's going to take a while to squeeze it back. I don't know what the next step is, but we're all trying to watch our costs. It is brutal."
DeLoach's team pulled off the biggest offseason transaction, signing 2008 champion Johnny Benson away from now-defunct Bill Davis Racing. Yet DeLoach said the team is having trouble landing sponsorship for the series' reigning three-time most popular driver, not to mention defending champ, which pretty much says it all about the financial landscape for truck teams.
The series enjoyed considerable stability in recent years with longtime veterans such as Ron Hornaday, Mike Skinner, Dennis Setzer and Jack Sprague contending for titles and piling up wins, but the season won't begin with every familiar name (see box). In fact, it remains to be seen how many names of any kind show up to race, especially next week at California and throughout the rest of the sparsely scheduled early season.
"I wish there was some way to have a full field of 36 trucks, competitive trucks," said Circle Bar Racing's Rick Crawford. "But let me tell you one thing: If we had 28 trucks in a race or 25 trucks in a race, you'd see one hell of a damn race, and I guarantee you between Mike Skinner, Ron Hornaday and those guys that we've always been putting on good shows, we'll have a race."
The races will be different, first with what trucks carry under the hood. In a rule that many teams had been unofficially following already as a cost-cutting measure, teams will be prohibited from using more than two engines in a three-race span.
A not-so-followed-before rule is the new 12-person staffing limit now in place for every team at each race. Only 12 on a team can be hands-on with the truck's operations, a number that includes the driver, crew chief and mandatory spotter but does not include owners, public relations representatives or other peripheral crew.
So in effect only nine can work the infield garage or the pits, a move that is forcing some teams to make its crew members into multitaskers, doing more than just changing tires on a weekend or working on shocks.
"It seems like we had probably too many people to begin with. If you look at what it really takes to service a car and run the team, I think that 12 is a good number," said Germain Racing owner Bob Germain, whose team includes 2006 champion Todd Bodine, another proven name with no primary sponsor at press time. "We had a lot of extra people there. That in itself is going to make us a little more conscious about who goes. That probably will save a little money. Travel expenses are a big number."
The five-men-over-the-wall limit is a radical move that harkens back to the Truck Series' infancy, when 10-minute "halftimes" allowed wholesale changes. Crew can still perform their wide range of services from adding wedge to taking windshield tear-offs to adding and removing grille tape, and they will be limited only by how much time they want to spend, but on the two most crucial items they'll have to make a choice -- tires or gas. Not both at once, though on a long caution a truck could just come around twice for stops and get everything.
"I think it might change some strategies a little bit. Is everybody going to come in that second lap?" said Rick Ren, crew chief on Hornaday's No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevy, last year's second-place truck. "I have a feeling at least for the first few races we'll be in a little bit of a chess game, more so than normal."
The shake-ups in driver and team lineups could also add intrigue to the first few races. Benson and crew chief Trip Bruce went together to Red Horse with several of their 2008 crew, but will the signs of being with a new team run deeper than the sheet metal? Could drivers like Hornaday, Crawford and ThorSport's Matt Crafton benefit from quiet offseasons?
"All my key guys, we're going into the third year without changing anybody -- I think that's an advantage for any program," Ren said. "Instead of the learning process of feeling everybody out, we're going to hit the ground running at Daytona just like we left Homestead [in November]. I'm not going to say it's a major advantage for us, but I think for the first few races it gives us an edge."
Last year a championship was decided on the last lap of the last race. The outset of this year's championship may be about acclimation and adjustment. But in the end it's still racing.
"I don't think [new rules] will hurt the race; I still believe that the racing is on the racetrack," said Mike Skinner, now driving his familiar No. 5 Toyota for Randy Moss Motorsports. "The pit road stuff, that's great, you're still going to have a chance for your pit crew to screw you up or to help you. I don't think any of that's going to change that much. I really think the people really come to see the race on the racetrack.
"The guy in the stands, I think he's going to see as good a show as he's ever seen."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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