AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Intermediate Tracks In McCumbee's WheelhouseThis was a one-time deal in what was supposedly a lackluster truck. Owner Bobby Dotter figured the 2006 Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway might be a five- or six-lap start-and-park cash grab, with his Green Light Racing team returning back to the shop to continue tinkering and driver Chad McCumbee going his separate way with a few more rookie points. Dotter couldn't have been happier to see that plan fail miserably. McCumbee, in a truck other drivers said didn't feel right on superspeedways, hustled it around to a ninth-place finish. The then-21-year-old rookie drove himself into a job the rest of the season, and two years later he's still around -- and doing his best work on the 1.5-mile ovals. Five of his career seven top-10s in trucks are on the 1.5-mile ovals Today McCumbee, reunited with the MRD Motorsports team with which he began his truck career, is eighth in points with three top-10s -- at Daytona and the intermediate ovals of Atlanta and Kansas. With the series returning this week after a three-week hiatus to Lowe's Motor Speedway (another 1.5-miler), McCumbee's looking for another breakthrough performance, maybe even something more than his career-best fifth earlier this season at Atlanta. "We're continuing to work toward getting better and better," said McCumbee, now 23. "We've been prepared, and I know what a good truck feels like on those bigger racetracks." Dotter, McCumbee's boss for 32 races from 2006-07, recognized that ability at Texas along with a keen respect for the realities of the series outside the world of deep-pocketed multi-truck teams. In practice, he expected the truck to run around 30th at best on the practice charts, only to see McCumbee put it in the top 20. Dotter was ready to put on a fresh set of Goodyears for qualifying in order to take a shot at a high qualifying spot, but McCumbee declined. "He said, 'We don't need to, we'll be midpack and don't need to waste a set of tires,'" Dotter recalled. "To have that kind of confidence and understand the budget, he won me over that race and we had an excellent last half of the year." McCumbee's efforts didn't go unnoticed elsewhere in NASCAR, as Petty Enterprises signed him to make two Sprint Cup starts in 2007 in relief of moonlighting TNT broadcaster Kyle Petty, at Pocono, Pa., and Michigan. Petty Enterprises vice president Robbie Loomis, a former crew chief for Dotter in his driving days, even discussed flying McCumbee back to Texas over the Pocono weekend as a favor to Dotter. McCumbee stuck solely with the Cup job for the weekend, finishing 25th in the rain-shortened race. "That was only half the race; I feel we should have moved up further," said McCumbee, whose return to Petty for two more races this summer was announced Tuesday. (He'll also drive in the Sprint Showdown this weekend with a Petty crew and a BAM Racing car.) "The main thing is I want to help these guys get better. That's my job and hopefully that's what I can do for them." He's living up to his end this season with MRD Motorsports and owner Dave Malcolmson, who, like most one-team owners, is beating the bushes for sponsorship money for the No. 8 Chevrolet. McCumbee is running his first full season with MRD after returning to the team late in 2007 when its partnership with Haas-CNC Racing created a better opportunity than he had at Green Light. He finished seventh in the season opener at Daytona, then after 18th at California he qualified second and finished fifth at Atlanta. The team's short-track package, still a work in progress, showed promise at Martinsville but ended in 32nd after a battery failure, dropping McCumbee from fourth to 13th in points after four races. But he rebounded with seventh at Kansas, after again qualifying second, and heads to Lowe's with confidence and increased knowledge about running alongside the elite teams of the series. "I think one of the big things is getting up front and running with those top guys. When you get out front you learn how to race up front," McCumbee said. "It's a totally different race running 20th than it is running fifth, when you get up front and get those guys' respect. It gets better and better every week." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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