Darnell hungry for more as he gets ready for step up to Nationwide Series

Updated: October 30, 2008, 8:17 PM ET

AP Photo/Dave Frechette

Erik Darnell's lone win this season came at the Cool City Customs 200 at Michigan International Speedway in June.

Darnell wishing he had nothing left to prove

Erik Darnell sounds as if he still has unfinished business in the Craftsman Truck Series, as though this year's possible top-five points finish with one win did not quite fit the bill of what he wanted out of his third full-time Truck season.

That's because it didn't. As Ron Hornaday Jr. and Johnny Benson battle for the championship, the 25-year-old feels a twinge of regret. Darnell wanted to be in that hunt, and he would be if the second half of the schedule were all that mattered.

But in another sense, his business is complete in the Roush Fenway Ford F-150. Last week his future with Roush was announced with a Nationwide Series deal, the kind of move up the NASCAR ladder that owner Jack Roush expects his truckers to make.

"At this point of my Truck Series career I shouldn't have any questions anymore. This is kind of going to be it for me as far as my chance in the Trucks," Darnell said in February, before the season began. "I've got to show Jack why he picked me."

Darnell has shown Jack. He's sitting in a tie for fourth (with Matt Crafton) in points, with more top-fives (nine) than he had in his two previous seasons combined, two pole positions and a win at Roush's home-state Michigan International Speedway in June.

Two years ago, Darnell was the series rookie of the year. Last year, he won his first race but regressed overall, with fewer top-10s and a lower average finish than his first season. It was a sophomore slump, but Darnell was given a chance to turn it around in a third season in the No. 99 Northern Tool + Equipment Ford.

It's a good sign for his future that Darnell succeeded, and a better sign that he still acts unfulfilled.

"I'm more or less happy. It's good to say we're fourth in points; at the same time we'd like to be fighting for that championship, too," Darnell said. "We're not quite there with the year that Ron and Johnny have had, but it's been pretty decent."

In the second half, yes. The first few months of the season were a struggle for the No. 99 team. The team was 12th in points following nine races, in which it recorded two top-10s and four finishes of 21st or worse. After a 24th-place finish in the spring Texas race, Darnell was only 30 points ahead of rookie teammate Colin Braun.

One week later at Michigan, a track that has turned around the seasons of many Roush drivers, Darnell put the puzzle back together and won in a photo finish. Since then, he has been the third-best truck in the series. If the standings were compiled on just the last 13 races, Darnell would trail Benson by 130 points and Hornaday by 44, instead of the 297- and 266-point gaps he has to those drivers in the official standings.

"I wish we had another 10 or 15 races," No. 99 crew chief Matt Puccia said. "After Michigan, we got some momentum going. We just needed to continue that."

Darnell finished fourth one week after Michigan, at Milwaukee. He then ran second to Hornaday at Memphis, a heavy-hearted evening -- he raced in the memory of roommate Jason Arden, who had been killed in a car accident two days prior to the race.

Six weeks after that, he was second again -- at Memphis, to Benson -- then in September he ran second again to Mike Skinner in a finish mirroring the one in Michigan. Darnell looks wistfully at all the runner-up finishes but knows half the battle is being in those positions at the end of races.

"I feel like we've gone out there and for the most part done our job, which is to beat these guys," Darnell said. "Look at who we're racing against -- Benson, Hornaday, Skinner, [Jack] Sprague, guys who have been to the Cup Series and back. They've got a lot of experience doing this, and quite a few of these guys have been around in the Truck Series since it started.

"It's cool to be able to say we beat these guys for quite a few weeks; we're fighting up there with them in the top five in points."

Cool enough to follow in the path of former Roush Truck pilots Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Todd Kluever, all rookies of the year who parlayed Truck seats into Nationwide deals and beyond.

Darnell will run 15 races in the No. 6 Roush Nationwide Ford next season, as his longtime sponsor is moving with him. Discount Tire has picked up the remainder of the season with David Ragan, so the Sprint Cup regular will get the other 20 races, including probably most that run in conjunction with Cup weekends.

"We're not going to be running for a championship, which is a little frustrating, but on the other hand I'll get a chance to move up to a car," Darnell said. "It's going to be good to run against a bunch of the Cup guys, which is going to help me out further down the line."

Darnell is almost certainly done full-time in the CTS, as Roush said that his first choice for any possible second truck (besides Braun, who is signed for another year in the No. 6) would be a development driver like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and that Darnell's truck time would hinge on a sponsor's desires.

Though he may walk away from this series somewhat unsatisfied, Darnell did his job -- he is walking away to the next step on the NASCAR ladder. That's the recipe for promising young drivers in the Truck Series.

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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Hornaday hoping for Texas two-step

Ron Hornaday Jr.

Hornaday

Johnny Benson has held the points lead for the last two races -- which means it's probably time for a switch Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, given the back-and-forth nature of this year's title chase.

Ron Hornaday Jr. chopped 34 points off a 65-point deficit by running second last week at Atlanta in the No. 33 Chevrolet, and a repeat performance of his spring effort at TMS could vault him into the lead again. In April he led 140 of 172 laps and outlasted Kyle Busch in a green-white-checker finish for his first win in 11 starts on the fast 1.5-mile oval.

"We've always had good trucks there, and to get a win, it was great," said Hornaday, the defending champion, from Kevin Harvick Inc. "I know we have a really good truck for this race; we've won a couple of races with it."

Benson's bringing the same No. 23 Toyota that finished seventh last weekend at Atlanta. He finished third in the first Texas race, and another top-three will keep him in front as he chases a first series title.

"We're not approaching anything differently than what we need to. We're just trying to run as fast as we can and do the best job that we can, and we're really not doing anything different than we've done all season to get us here," said Benson, of Bill Davis Racing. "Sure, you're going to look around and you're going to see what's around and see what's happening, but I don't think we really did anything more or different earlier in the year either because they all count the same."

Bell excelling for TRG

The longest current streak of top-10 finishes doesn't belong to any of the "name" drivers in the Truck Series. It's T.J. Bell, in the No. 7 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet.

Bell, 28, finished ninth at Atlanta for his fifth consecutive top-10 and seventh in the last nine races. He moved into the No. 7 nine races into the season, replacing Andy Lally, and appears to be driving himself into a full-time job next year.

A former CART Atlantic and endurance racer, Bell made 30 truck starts between 2003 and 2007, including 16 last year in Roush Fenway Racing's No. 50 Ford. He has made more starts at Texas than anywhere else, though his first stop this season with TRG ended early with a blown engine.

"It's good that we're going back to a place that we've already been," Bell said. "We have a notebook built up on that, so I'm pretty excited."

Spare Parts

Open-wheel champion Paul Tracy will make his Truck debut at Texas in the No. 9 Germain Racing Toyota. Max Papis, announced to drive a part-time Sprint Cup schedule for Germain next year, will make his Truck debut in the No. 07 Chevy of SS-Greenlight Racing. … Keep an eye on the battle for 10th in points and the last spot in the season-ending banquet, which honors the top 10 drivers. Chad McCumbee and Terry Cook are tied for the spot, with David Starr 73 points behind. Cook is driving for his second team this season, running the last five races for HT Motorsports after being released by Wyler Racing -- which will likely be a banquet team with Cook's replacement, Jack Sprague, who is ninth in points. … Ryan Newman won't get a chance to go back-to-back after winning at Atlanta. Cale Gale is driving the No. 2 Chevrolet for Kevin Harvick Inc.

Standings