Simply dominant in 2007, Skinner still trying to find that groove in 2008

Updated: June 5, 2008, 10:08 AM ET

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

It's been a backward, smoke-in-your-eyes kind of season for veteran trucker Mike Skinner (5).

Frustrated Skinner Searching For Answers

Eight races into the Craftsman Truck Series season, Bill Davis Racing finally got a win. Just not from a truck accustomed to Victory Lane. Scott Speed took the checkered flag at Dover, not Johnny Benson or Mike Skinner, the duo who combined for nine BDR wins in 2007. The veterans have had a slower start to the season, most notably Skinner, the toast of the truck world at this time a year ago.

One-third of the way through the 2007 season, Skinner and the No. 5 Toyota Tundra were laying waste to the series. He had won three races in a row, at California, Atlanta and Martinsville, and had strung together six consecutive poles from Atlanta to Dover. He had led 38 percent of the laps in eight races, 505 in all. It would be another two months before he would finish a race outside the top eight.

Best of all, Skinner was atop the points, 77 clear of Ron Hornaday.

But now, those gaudy numbers are a distant memory. In 2008, Skinner has no wins, one pole and seven total laps led. He has more 29th-place finishes (two, at Daytona and Martinsville) than top-3s (one, a third at Atlanta) and three qualifying efforts of 12th or worse after never starting below ninth last year. He is seventh in points, 67 behind leader Rick Crawford.

"It's amazing. Last year was one of those years we could not do anything wrong," Skinner said. "We'd have a mediocre piece and end up winning the race, or we'd have a real good piece and end up finishing in the top 5. Up until Homestead [where the championship was lost to Hornaday], it was pretty awesome. Now … we can't do anything right.

"The differential between us and the guys that are beating us is huge, whereas last year, whenever we got beat, it was by a hair. Very rarely did we get smoked like we're getting by a couple of our competitors now."

Quirky racing circumstances that never plagued the team a year ago are happening now, like at Dover. On an early yellow-flag pit stop, Skinner was second coming in and had an air hose break on the stop, putting him 19th on the restart. He worked his way back up through traffic but found trouble again, with the No. 5 catching the back end of a crash and sustaining nose damage. Repairs ensued, and he finished seventh with a pole-sitting truck.

Still, it was a top-10, giving the team a series-best six in eight races and four in a row after a start to the season that featured two throwaway finishes. But chasing top-10s isn't the No. 5 team's M.O., not after last year.

Then again, last year was virtually a different era in the truck series. This season's rule changes, most notably an intake change mandating tapered spacers (similar to restrictor plates) at every event, have made a lot of teams' notebooks obsolete.

"We've known for years, from the inception of when Toyota came into the truck series, our bodies were a little draggier than everybody else's, but we made a lot of downforce," said Jeff Hensley, crew chief on the No. 5. "The Toyota engine was head and shoulders above [everyone else], so we could take all that downforce and drag, and coupled with a really good motor, we could go fast. Now, with the plate, there's probably only 5-10 horsepower difference from the worst to best engine, and we've still got the drag we've had for years. It makes it a little tougher."

For Skinner, it starts with qualifying, long his strong suit. Last year, his 10 poles set a series record and his average start was a mind-boggling 2.5. Those starts allowed him to lead early in nearly every race, collecting key bonus points, and the overall strength of the team, truck and driver kept him up front. This season, his qualifying advantage has been nullified, and he hasn't started each race from the top two rows.

"When I was getting all those poles, there might only be four, five trucks in the whole field that would attempt to run wide open around some of these racetracks," Skinner said. "Now, everybody can do it."

In race setups, the team is struggling to find the right balance with the engine change. For this Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, they are taking a different Tundra, one with slightly more downforce. That, combined with Skinner's usual strength on that 1.5-mile oval (he hasn't won there, but his 4.8 average finish is his best on any track currently on the schedule), might finally lead to a win, or at least a finish within shouting distance.

"Whenever there's a rule change, it takes a while for the driver's style to get adapted to it," said Skinner, who will turn 51 later this month. "I'm not so sure my style is good for this rule package. I've got to change my style, or we've got to change our trucks. We've got to find out why we're not as stellar as we were before.

"It's been tough, but it's the same group of guys that won five races last year and almost a championship. We're probably an even better race team, but it's just one of those times."

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

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Crawford Claims Points Lead

Rick Crawford

Crawford

When Todd Bodine crashed with 30 laps remaining at Dover, the door opened for someone to claim his points lead. Enter Rick Crawford in his Circle Bar Racing Ford, finishing ninth at the Monster Mile to take over the top spot.

He's a rather quiet points leader, with no finish higher than third and one lap led. But he also has completed all but one lap on the season, with no finish below 14th.

"I'd like to think of the perfect scenario is to go ahead now, pull away and win the championship outright and have it be no contest at the end," Crawford said. "But let's get to reality here -- those are tough customers that have let me take the points lead. I didn't reach up and take it; they had some misfortune. Now it's up to us to stay up in the points. Even if we don't have the lead, I think our team's going to get strong enough to stay in contention."

The 12-year veteran last led the points after winning the 2003 series opener at Daytona, although he fell out of the lead the following week. His highest championship finish is second in 2002.

Crazy Weekend For Busch

Kyle Busch

Busch

This upcoming weekend should have been one on which the truck series got the short end of the stick from Kyle Busch, with the Nationwide Series at Nashville, Tenn., and the Sprint Cup Series at Pocono, Pa., plenty far away from Friday night's Sam's Town 400 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Then again, would you take off a race right now if you were in his shoes?

Busch, who led the first 96 laps in the Billy Ballew Motorsports No. 51 in the truck race at Dover before fading with transmission problems, will run Friday night at Texas to kick off a whirlwind schedule. He's going to compete in all three series in three days in three states, a NASCAR first.

"It's just about racing it and trying to keep ourselves up in the points and keep Billy Ballew up in the [truck] owners standings," said Busch, who has 10 wins on the season across all three series, including two in trucks. "A lot of it has to do with the fans -- they like to see it, and they want to go see a driver trying to race in as many races as they can and to see somebody be as crazy as I am most of the time."

His Joe Gibbs Racing Cup team will get full attention though, as he'll skip practice and qualifying in the other series. Ballew development driver J.R. Norris will put the No. 51 Toyota Tundra through its paces in practice and qualifying.

"I'm a little nervous because I haven't been in a truck all year," said Norris, who finished 20th at Texas in Ballew's No. 15 this past November. "I wish I could race the truck myself, but if Kyle was to win, I know that I played a part in that, and that is a good feeling."

Busch has come close at Texas before in the trucks, finishing second in 2006 to Clint Bowyer.

Annett To Share Ride With Speed

Also on Busch's plane from Pocono to Texas will be Scott Speed, who is running his own multi-race weekend. Speed will practice and qualify his ARCA car at Pocono in advance of a Saturday race, then fly to Texas to drive his No. 22 Bill Davis Racing Toyota and try for two wins in a row.

Qualifying and practicing that Tundra will be Michael Annett, a 21-year-old BDR developmental driver who scored the first Toyota win in ARCA last year at Talladega in a BDR Camry.

He'll make his truck race debut next week at Milwaukee, Wis., and share the No. 22 with Speed for the remainder of the season.

Standings