AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
By a nose: Erik Darnell (99) beat Johnny Benson in a photo finish at Michigan International Speedway.
Michigan Win Points Darnell in Right Direction
The final few yards of racetrack at Michigan changed Erik Darnell
's entire perspective on the season.
Had Saturday's Craftsman Truck Series race ended a fraction of a second earlier, the third-year Roush Fenway Racing driver would have finished second to Bill Davis Racing's Johnny Benson
, adding another entry to a season full of "we had a great truck, but
Instead, Darnell's No. 99 fought back with side-draft help to edge Benson by five-thousandths of a second at the stripe, a margin so close that Darnell didn't know for sure he had won until confirmation came over the radio in Turn 3 of his cooldown lap.
"It's so hard to tell from inside the truck," Darnell said. "I was praying we did, hoping we did, but I didn't know."
Now he knows that good things can happen with his usually strong Roush equipment. At times through the first nine races of the season, he had doubts.
Darnell sat on the pole for the opener at Daytona by nearly two-tenths of a second ahead of the field and led nearly half the laps, but developed a vibration late and was hit from behind while trying to pit. He finished 21st. At Atlanta, he was caught speeding on pit road and finished a lap down. Kansas ended early with a crash and a season-worst 28th-place finish after a hit from fellow Ford driver Rick Crawford
The two starts immediately prior to Michigan -- Dover and Texas -- were 25th and 24th, respectively. Those weren't indications that Michigan would be a breakthrough race, but the No. 99 team insists the signs were there all along.
"We didn't do anything different this week -- it's the same stuff we've been doing every week," crew chief Matt Puccia said. "We just haven't been able to get all the stars and moons to line up properly. We've been good everywhere we've gone."
Still, something would happen. In those first nine races, Darnell finished off the lead lap more times than not (five races off, four on), and even in his best finish, a fourth-place finish at Charlotte, a possible win was thwarted on a late restart when Benson's Toyota passed him for the lead.
"[Michigan] was déjà vu all over again, the same situation with five, six laps to go and Johnny Benson behind us," Puccia said. "It was like 'Oh boy, here we go again.' But Erik drove like a veteran, he did what he needed to do to close the deal."
Darnell, 25, is now expected to be that veteran on the three-truck team with rookie Colin Braun
in the No. 6 and a rotation of drivers in the No. 09. He was rookie of the year in 2006, then a fairly pedestrian (for Roush) 12th in points with one win last year at Kansas.
Getting win No. 1 in the books this season is a start, but in his shop that doesn't make for a banner year like it might for smaller teams.
"We've got to be winning more of these things. We're only 10th in points after the couple of bad races we had; we should definitely be competing for top five in points," Darnell said. "We are a championship-level team, and we should be up there in the points competing for it. Travis Kvapil
and Mike Beam, what those guys were able to do together winning four races [last year in the No. 6], I think we should be on that level as well. That's what we're shooting for."
Now Darnell begins a midseason stretch that was his best a year ago, with seven top-10s in nine starts beginning with Milwaukee. Saturday he'll take to the mile oval knowing that good fortune is again possible, thanks to a few extra yards at Michigan.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.