CTS more competitive in '04

Updated: March 18, 2004, 11:56 AM ET
Associated Press

Bobby Hamilton
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 4-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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press