Good news and bad news as Truck Series sprints to the finish

Updated: October 24, 2008, 12:28 PM ET

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Johnny Benson crosses the finish line to win the Kroger 200 at Martinsville on Saturday.

Roller-coaster year continues in Truck Series

Another typical weekend in the 2008 Craftsman Truck Series played out at Martinsville.

On the track, a seesaw points battle took another turn Saturday as Ron Hornaday Jr. ran out of gas with three laps to go to allow Johnny Benson to take over the points lead with his fifth win of the season.

Off the track, another dose of bad news hit the series when it was reported Sunday that Ford teams would no longer receive financial support from the manufacturer as the automotive industry continues to struggle in a slow economy.

It's been that kind of year, although the pendulum swung back to the good side Thursday with the announcement that Camping World is coming aboard as series sponsor for at least seven years beginning in 2009.

The championship battle could come down to Homestead for the second consecutive season, with the winner being either a first repeat champion in Hornaday or the reigning two-time most popular driver in Benson. Plenty are watching to see who has the upper hand race to race, with Truck Series ratings on SPEED up 19 percent over a year ago, according to NASCAR.

Yet fields are shrinking in the wake of a bad economy, with only three of the past 10 events having full fields of 36 trucks; two-truck teams are downsizing to one, and some one-truck operations have folded. Sponsorships are tougher to land when times are bad, making blank-slate vehicles a common sight -- even in Victory Lane.

Preceding Ford's announcement six weeks ago was Dodge declaring that it also would be pulling its financial support from the series, sending its most high-profile team, Bobby Hamilton Racing, into negotiations with other manufacturers for next year.

It was enough to make some fans wonder if there would be a 15th season, but the Camping World deal answered that.

The overall perception of the Truck Series certainly hasn't been good, but fortunately the reality in some areas is slightly different. For starters -- the best news of all -- NASCAR hasn't lost faith in its No. 3 series.

"We are very bullish on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series," NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola said. "It's a great series that will excite our most avid fans for many years to come."

Was a prospective title sponsor deterred by two of the four manufacturers that run Nationwide and Sprint Cup programs assuming decreased roles in the Truck Series? Perhaps not.

In this case, taking two of the four manufacturers away does not equal 50 percent of the Truck garage. Dodge's downsizing in the series began years earlier, to the point that only two full-time entries remain, and Ford currently has six full-time teams, about half as many as Toyota and Chevrolet.

Indications are that at least three of those six Fords will return.

"I don't think, from a competitive standpoint, you will see anything less on the racetrack than what you've already seen," said Rick Crawford, seventh in points in Circle Bar Racing's No. 14 Ford. "Things happen that you have to tighten your belt up."

Crawford said his truck and the No. 10 of teammate Brendan Gaughan will continue next year with Roush-Yates engines and other technical support that Ford Racing has vowed to continue in the series.

Elsewhere, the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is a question mark, and unfortunately for the series the three-truck Roush Fenway stable may not continue next season. Owner Jack Roush said Wednesday that likely 2008 Rookie of the Year Colin Braun will return in the familiar No. 6, but the others hinge on sponsorship.

"It could be two [trucks], I think at this point it's unlikely that it would be three, but having said that, Jack is always our best salesperson, said Torrey Galida, Roush Fenway executive vice president of marketing. "If there was a sponsor who came to us and we put together the right program, we would certainly look at any opportunities that we could."

Sponsorship questions are lingering everywhere regardless of nameplate, but manufacturer support from Toyota and Chevrolet remains sound. The makes have battled for top manufacturer honors since Toyota came into the series four years ago, and neither plan on backing down, at least for now.

"I would say that we're as committed inasmuch as we've got teams that we have agreements with to run in the series through this year and into next year, as well. We'll honor those commitments," said Pat Suhy, GM Racing NASCAR group manager. "We've done a pretty good job internally looking at our overall NASCAR investment; it's got a positive return."

"The level of competition is an important factor in being involved. We're very satisfied with the current level of competition; our teams are in a dogfight right now," said Les Unger, national motorsports manager for Toyota.

Even in the dogfight, some unusual sights pop up thanks to the economic climate. Benson won at Martinsville on Saturday in a black-and-red No. 23 Toyota devoid of sponsorship on the hood or the side panels. When was the last time you saw an unsponsored vehicle win in NASCAR?

The cupboard isn't bare at Bill Davis Racing, however. Benson's two main sponsors, Exide Batteries and Toyota Certified Used Vehicles, claimed all but five races on the schedule, but BDR sought a one-off sponsor for the fall Martinsville race. BDR had succeeded in finding sponsors for earlier races but ran out of time to get a deal done for Martinsville, according to a team source. So Benson took the blank car to the paper clip-shaped track and won, a sight that probably didn't make anyone's day in NASCAR's business offices.

An unsponsored truck is still better than none at all, and there was more news this week about a smaller team consolidating operations due to the economy. SS-Green Light Racing ran two full-time trucks this year, the No. 07 Chevrolet shared by a number of drivers and the No. 08 Dodge primarily driven by Jason White. Team co-owner Bobby Dotter confirmed that only one of those trucks would continue with the team next year.

Dotter, a regular in the series since 2001, first as a driver and then an owner, said he is unsure which team will survive and with which manufacturer, but that the reality could be better than the perception of a two-truck team shrinking into one.

"It may sound bad that we might only be running one team, but when I came in to the Truck Series we only campaigned one team full-time and we were very competitive, 14th, 15th in points," Dotter said. "There weren't a bunch of factory-backed teams; there wasn't as much money being spent. There were more trucks in general because a guy like me could come in and be competitive.

"The immediate thing everybody is looking at is doom and gloom because a lot of these big teams are going to be struggling, but I think the long range of it is it may be exactly what helps the Truck Series bring back some new blood for teams that know they can't run top-10, but at least they can make the race and they can be respectable."

SS-Green Light Racing's two teams have one top-10 finish this season. Combined.

"If we have teams that can weather this, maybe next year it will be a lot more spread out where it's not the same handful of teams that are running up there all the time," Dotter said. "I think it's going to be more likely that a team like us, or some of these other teams, can get some top-10s now and then instead of one or two for the whole year."

Like so much else in this series, we'll have to wait and see.

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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Darnell likely out of Trucks next season

Erik Darnell

Darnell

If more than one Roush Fenway Ford materializes in the Truck Series next season alongside Colin Braun, owner Jack Roush said Wednesday that Erik Darnell wouldn't be the first candidate to drive it.

Darnell, the 2006 rookie of the year and a two-time race winner, including Michigan this summer, is sixth in points and appears to have shown enough in three Truck seasons to move up the ladder at Roush for 2009.

"Erik is going to have an involvement with us next year in the Nationwide Series," Roush said. "If Erik is going to advance, my understanding of his career goal wasn't that he wanted to be a Truck driver for his career. Although he's not running for a championship, he'll get a significant number of races in a Nationwide Fusion next year."

Roush has traditionally used the Truck Series as a proving ground for young drivers, with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards all winning rookie honors and eventually moving to Sprint Cup [Biffle also won a Truck championship for Roush, in 2000]. He said he would prefer to put development driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. [fourth in ARCA points with two wins this season] or another up-and-comer into a Truck next year if adequate sponsorships are found.

"Erik would not be the first choice to put back in a full-time truck if another sponsor came, but if a sponsor was insistent, that would certainly be OK," Roush said.

Newman, Hamlin, Busch to run Atlanta

Several Sprint Cup regulars are adding Saturday's race to their Sunday duties, including a first Truck start for Ryan Newman.

Newman, this year's Daytona 500 winner in a Penske Racing Dodge, is moving to Stewart Haas Racing next year in Cup, which will also mean a move to Chevrolet. He won't drive a Chevy car this season, but he'll wheel the No. 2 Chevy Silverado at Atlanta for Kevin Harvick Inc., a one-off that was the product of a conversation between wife Krissie and KHI co-owner DeLana Harvick.

"When the seat came open in their 2 truck [following the firing of Jack Sprague], we talked about it and [Kevin] asked me if I would be interested. The timing was just right," Newman said. "Everyone has always told me how much fun they have running the trucks, and now I've got the shot to see what it's like."

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, teammates in Cup with Joe Gibbs Racing, will team up for the second time this season for Billy Ballew Motorsports. Hamlin raced the No. 15 Toyota Tundra in the spring race at Martinsville, Va., while Busch has made 14 starts in the No. 51 with three wins, including the spring race at Atlanta.

Also in the field is 2003 series champion Travis Kvapil, making his seventh appearance of the year in the No. 09 Roush Fenway Ford.

Spare Parts

Ron Hornaday Jr. has sat on the pole and finished second to Kyle Busch in the past two Atlanta races. He won at the 1.5-mile oval in 2005 for Kevin Harvick Inc. Benson, ahead by 65 in points after winning Saturday at Martinsville, has three top-5s in seven starts but was 30th in the spring race after an early crash. … Chrissy Wallace will make her fifth start of the year in the No. 09 Germain Toyota.

Standings