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Rookie Puts TRG In Spotlight With Victory At MansfieldKevin Buckler isn't treading lightly into the Craftsman Truck Series. His TRG Motorsports team had been successful for more than a decade in sports-car racing, but he knew that guaranteed nothing in NASCAR. He studied other teams' operations and, when seeing with his own eyes how competitive the truck series was at the top of the grid, poured even more resources into his two-truck program. "We're not just throwing a Hail Mary like a lot of people do, just coming to participate," Buckler said. "We've been working on this for a couple years. We have a long-term business plan." That long-term plan paid off in a surprisingly short time last weekend at Mansfield, Ohio. Rookie Donny Lia winning Saturday's Ohio 250 was a great story in itself, a tale of a lifelong modified-series driver holding his own in a rough-and-tumble short track race and beating some of the best drivers in the series in a last-lap dash. Rookies simply don't do that in this series; the last rookie winner was Carl Edwards five years ago. An equally good story is Lia's team. Edwards, of course, won as a rookie with Roush Racing, which in 2003 was the farthest thing from a new team looking to merely gain traction in the series and build for the future. Winning immediately was a legitimate expectation. But for TRG Motorsports, just a few months into its truck series life? No way. "I'm pleasantly surprised," Buckler said. "Obviously it's pretty cool, seven races into the season and we've got a win. I imagine you could go seven years without doing that in this series." Forget imagining -- Matt Crafton's win the week before at Charlotte, N.C., was the first win in 10 years for ThorSport Racing since winning a race in its first year, 1998. Don't bet on TRG having the same drought. For one thing, it will have strength in numbers, perhaps as a three-truck team next year. This season Lia and fellow rookie Andy Lally are the drivers in the two-truck Chevrolet operation; Buckler felt that running multiple entries was crucial to building a competitive team. His sports-car operation has always brought multiple bullets to the fight, helping to dominate the Grand Am circuit to the tune of a record 23 consecutive podium finishes in 2005-06. Buckler calls TRG a Hendrick Motorsports-type team in sports cars, which isn't hyperbole. "We're locked and loaded and full over there -- it's a big part of our business dynamic," said Buckler, a driver for 12 years before giving up the wheel to concentrate fully on ownership. "We've been able to get better people, better engineering, better traction with manufacturers and the series by having a larger operation. It's more stable to have a broader effort like this, in case something happens for a single race, a single sponsor. I think we can up the level of what we do by having better resources." It's also a compliment to the truck series that TRG chose to cut its NASCAR teeth there instead of the Nationwide Series. The team put road-racing ace Lally in cars for the Nationwide races at Montreal and Watkins Glen, N.Y., last year, and had success with a 10th at the Glen, but Buckler didn't like the environment for a brand-new team. "I'm a real believer in a fair fight. I wasn't sure I could understand the dynamic quick enough in the Nationwide Series of how a young start-up team, no matter how good they do, could relate to a mother ship ahead of them, a bigger Cup team that could suck them up," he said. "I could find myself making a bad judgment call there. "I didn't feel I was at that same loss in the truck series. I felt like if we got in there, got the right alignments, right manufacturers, the right drivers, we could run a competitive program. It's really good racing, and the budgets are more manageable. We figured rather than possibly losing an arm, we could lose a finger or two if things didn't go so well." Things are going well, with Lia leading the way. All of a sudden there could be a rookie-of-the-year race after all, with the 27-year-old New Yorker pulling to within eight points of Roush Fenway Racing's 19-year-old phenom Colin Braun. Lia is not thinking about that. Amazingly, he wasn't even thinking about a breakthrough effort at Mansfield last week. Short tracks suit the former Whelen Modified Tour champion. His best truck finish prior to Mansfield was a ninth at Martinsville, Va., but he was looking ahead to more races on the intermediate ovals in his No. 71 Chevy. That's where TRG has been working furiously to get to the level of the better teams. "I wasn't looking forward to going to Mansfield as much I was looking forward to Dover and Texas, but I knew we could get good finishes [on short tracks]," said Lia, whose high finish outside the half-mile ovals is 12th at Kansas. "We've just been working so hard on speedway program -- that's what I've been focused on. "If we can run as good on big tracks as I think we're going to, that's going to be great -- that's pretty much a complete program. There's not a ton of trucks in the field that run good on both types of tracks." Just like there are not a lot of teams that break into the truck series with first-year success. 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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