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CTS more competitive in '04

3/18/2004

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Bobby Hamilton pulled beside Mike Skinner in
the final turn of the final lap. When they made contact coming to
the finish line, Skinner went for a half-spin through the grass and
Hamilton went on to victory.

A few years ago, that might have been a battle for victory in
what is now NASCAR's Nextel Cup series. Instead, the
on-the-edge-of-your-seat finish came in the inaugural Craftsman
Truck Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the second of 25
races this year in the series.

Started as just another developmental division in 1995 by
NASCAR, it hardly looks that way anymore.

"It's probably the best thing going, other than Cup," said
Steve Park, another veteran running for the truck title in 2004.

Hamilton made the jump -- or took a step back, depending on who
you ask -- to the trucks last season after he lost his ride. A
four-time Cup winner, he tired of the constant struggles with
underfunded teams and the litany of questions he faced about all
the younger drivers coming up to take his job.

So Hamilton decided to drive for himself with the team he
started several years ago. He expected to run up front nearly every
week (he did) and contend for the title (he didn't).

"We were picked to win the championship head over heels over
everybody," said Hamilton, who led the standings until midseason.
After that, "we struggled because we were grasping at straws."

The chase for this year's championship should be even tougher.

Skinner, who won the title in the series' first season, is back
and driving for newcomer Toyota. He's joined by three-time champ
Jack Sprague and Park, a two-time winner in his 4½-season Cup
career.

All turned down opportunities elsewhere to run in the truck
series, where they were looking for one thing: a competitive ride
that would help them win races.

"I'm tired of being disappointed," said Park, who also has
battled head injuries the past couple of years. "It just becomes a
grind when you run poorly week in and week out. I want to run up
front and win races. I'm a winner, just like Mike, Bobby and
Sprague. That's what we all want."

So far, Park's poor luck appears to have followed him to his new
gig. He's crashed in both races so far when other drivers around
him lost control, and he's 19th in the standings.

Hamilton is the only one of the veterans in the top five -- he's
third behind defending series champ Travis Kvapil and fellow
neophyte Carl Edwards -- with Skinner eighth and Sprague 25th.

"I think we're behind the eight-ball a little bit," Sprague
said of his team. "I don't know if we were overconfident coming
into this season or what, but we haven't gotten the handle on our
new trucks yet."

The challenge of Toyota can't be dismissed, either.

"Anybody who didn't think Toyota was going to come in here and
spend a bunch of money to run up front and win races was sadly
mistaken," Sprague said.

That was one of the reasons Skinner came back. In five full
seasons on the Cup circuit, he had a best finish of second and came
home 10th in the point standings in 1999.

But he ran all 36 races in 2003 without a top 10. After an
offseason discussion with his wife, Angela, Skinner decided to
return to where he started his NASCAR career.

"There's only a handful of teams over there in the Cup garage
where you can win races," Skinner said. "I wasn't able to land
one of those premier rides. It was just a deal where I was getting
tired of going home discouraged. I wanted to run up front."

And have a chance to be a part of finishes such as the one at
Atlanta.

"I had a lot of fun," Skinner said. "I haven't had that much
fun in a long, long time."