Howard gaining steam after career-best finish at ORP

Updated: July 31, 2008, 11:36 AM ET

AP Photo/Rusty Burroughs

Shelby Howard (23) failed to crack the top 20 in eight starts with Bill Davis Racing in 2004.

Howard builds momentum in second ThorSport Chevrolet

Matt Crafton's career-best season in the Craftsman Truck Series continued up front Friday night at O'Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis, as he finished fourth in the ThorSport Racing No. 88 Chevrolet.

Even better, his wingman trailed immediately behind him for the first time. Shelby Howard, first-year driver of the ThorSport Racing No. 13, scored his career-best finish, finishing fifth at a track near his hometown of Greenwood, Ind., and showing that the team's potential goes beyond its third-in-points veteran.

"It was good, being here in the hometown and doing well," said Howard, who turned 23 that same Friday and had plenty to celebrate. "The guys have been working really hard; they deserved it. Hopefully, we can take a little momentum from it for the rest of the year."

If that sounds like a somewhat muted response from an excellent race, that's Howard. He's not one to get too excited over success, having already experienced the other side of the racing spectrum.

At age 18 he had made great strides in his racing career, starting the 2004 truck season in the Bill Davis Racing No. 23. He earned the seat on the strength of his ARCA record, which included a start in 2001 as the youngest driver at the time to race in the series and a 2003 season in which he became the youngest winner ever at 17 years, 9 months and had 10 top-5s in 22 starts and a third-place points finish.

Similar prosperity never came in the BDR Toyota, with no top-20s in eight starts. It was BDR's first season in the series, and its other trucks started out slow. Still, Howard was replaced after the season's ninth race.

"I had a lot of opportunities at that time to do a couple different things, and I decided to go with Bill Davis. It was just a bad situation, really," Howard said. "It was a team that was thrown together, I was young and I was a rookie. … It could have been a great situation for me, but at the time I didn't want it to go on any longer because it just wasn't working.

"I didn't really learn anything as a race-car driver; I learned about the politics side of the sport. It can be pretty grueling."

Johnny Benson took over the No. 23 immediately after Howard, failing to win until 2006 but now on a run of 12 wins in 55 races and leading the points.

"I guess they thought Johnny was going to come in and fix the whole thing," Howard said. "He obviously didn't -- it took him a while. I was young enough that they didn't think I could get the job done with what I had."

Howard ended up in the Hooters Pro Cup Series full-time, with a smattering of Nationwide starts, hoping to catch another full-time break in NASCAR at some point. That came with ThorSport, which had an opening after releasing 2007 Rookie of the Year Willie Allen.

Owner Duke Thorson brought Howard on board without requiring the driver to bring in big sponsor dollars, although Howard did supply two rigs from his family's trucking company to pull team haulers. He's now 17th in points, showing prowess on the short tracks (fifth at ORP, sixth at Mansfield, Ohio) and trying to break through on the others.

"He's working hard and he's learning. He's still young," Crafton said Tuesday during a break in team testing at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway oval. "Still trying to figure out the feel of these trucks, how to get them to handle at the beginning of a run to making them good at the end of a run. He's definitely got it figured out on the short tracks. Now he's figuring out what he's got to do to make his stuff good on the mile-and-a-half program.

"You're not just going to come into this truck deal and come out here and win races and run top-5 each and every week. But I hope he is here for a long time. I definitely think he can be. He's just got to be patient."

Howard also finished 20th in the Nationwide race at ORP, as ThorSport made its first start in that series by modifying one of Howard's Hooters Pro Cup cars. Howard said that car may also run in August at Bristol, Tenn.

"They've been great to work with as far as that kind of stuff goes," Howard said. "[Thorson] really wants the 13 to succeed and run like the 88, and he'll take the steps to make that happen.

"I'm getting the time to learn, and this is a good place for it."

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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Tires may have cost Hornaday

Ron Hornaday Jr.

Hornaday

We're not talking a tire debacle like the one that played out Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Kevin Harvick Inc. No. 33 crew chief Rick Ren thought his man's chances at winning at ORP were compromised by a less-than-perfect set of Goodyears.

Ron Hornaday Jr. led 153 of 200 laps but Bill Davis Racing's Johnny Benson led the final 39 in the No. 23 Toyota, holding off Hornaday's Chevy through four late restarts.

"That set of tires would not roll the corner," Ren said. "When you've got two guys that are really good, it doesn't take much to make a difference. [Hornaday] wanted to come in again [for new tires], but I said no. Benson wouldn't have pitted, we would have been back in all those yellows and would have been involved in one of them."

East has eventful weekend at ORP

Brownsburg, Ind., native Bobby East gave the hometown crowd at ORP several things to cheer about. Two of the three were good for him.

East won a USAC Silver Crown race last Thursday night, leading all 100 laps for the second consecutive year. He then put the No. 09 Roush Fenway Ford on the pole for the truck race -- his first pole in 29 truck events, but his second front-row start in his past two after qualifying second at Memphis.

The race didn't go as smoothly. East led the first four laps until Hornaday got around in the No. 33 Chevrolet, starting an 82-lap stint out front. He remained in the top five until a wild crash on Lap 122 crippled his Ford. Contact between Brendan Gaughan and Stacy Compton forced Compton's Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia Dodge up the track on the frontstretch and into East, and the No. 09 rode the outside wall on two wheels briefly, bringing "oohs" from the crowd. He lost a lap while getting alignment repairs, though he got the lap back under caution and continued on to a 19th-place finish.

"I guess Brendan ran Stacy up the track, which put him into me," East said. "I was already up the side of his door and he put me into the fence and ruined our night."

McCumbee in Cup car at Pocono

Third-year truck veteran Chad McCumbee got out of the No. 8 Chevrolet incensed Friday night at ORP, out early for the second consecutive race after a wreck with Kyle Busch. He didn't predict on-track revenge but said, "I might get to see him a little bit more than he thinks the rest of the year and might get to race with him a little bit more."

That opportunity may come this weekend at Pocono, Pa. McCumbee was announced Tuesday as driver of the No. 45 Dodge of Petty Enterprises, replacing Kyle Petty. He drove the car last year at Pocono and Michigan, and this year failed to qualify at Texas and Dover. He will again have to try to qualify on speed, as the No. 45 is outside the top 35 in Cup owner points.

Spare Parts

The truck series is off this week, and then it travels to Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 9 for 150 laps on the 1.33-mile concrete oval. … Erik Darnell started and finished third at ORP for his fourth top-5 finish in five starts in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford. He has moved from 12th to seventh in points over that span. … Roush Fenway's Colin Braun scored his second Nationwide pole of the season at ORP, and then finished a career-best second behind Busch. … Hornaday and Ren will team up in the KHI No. 33 Chevy Impala in the Nationwide race Saturday in Montreal. Germain Racing's Justin Marks will drive the No. 10 Toyota Camry for owner Todd Braun.

Standings