Skinner nudge leads to another truck victory
Mike Skinner nudged his way to another Truck Series victory at Atlanta, serving notice he's a force to contend with this season, writes John Schwarb.
It was just another week Mike Skinner said he would have rather "kept the fenders on" and collected a top-10, maybe top-5 finish.
The rest of the drivers in the Craftsman Truck Series probably wish he would start living up to those expectations.
Instead, Skinner is doing better than top-5s -- he's taking checkered flags. Friday was his second in a row, winning the American Commercial Lines 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The pole-winning Skinner drove his Bill Davis Racing Toyota Tundra to a race-high 67 laps in front, but wasn't in the top spot with seven laps remaining.
Clint Bowyer was the front-runner, trying to win in his first truck start of the season.
But like California, where a restart tussle between the leading two trucks allowed Skinner to slide through from third place to the lead and eventually the win, Atlanta played out in similar fashion.
This time Skinner was in the thick of it, getting into the back of Bowyer just enough to get him loose. Bowyer's loss of momentum was Skinner's gain, and he took the lead for the final time on the way to his 21st truck victory.
"I'd still rather be in the front," Skinner said, referring to restart strategy. "I think someone who spins out the leader should be black-flagged. But our situation was different."
The entire season has been different so far for the 49-year-old NASCAR veteran. He leads the points for the first time since 1996 (69 points ahead of fellow Toyota driver Todd Bodine), and for the first time since 1995 he has visited Victory Lane in the season's opening three races.
"The best part about winning early is that it takes the pressure off," said Skinner, now in his sixth full-time season in trucks. "Some drivers have pressure put on by their owners or sponsors to win, and though I've never had that from Toyota, I put a lot of pressure on myself. Winning allows us to relax and get our stuff ready for the rest of the year."
Best of the rest
Outside of the Toyota twosome at the top, a handful of drivers turned in their best finishes of the season at Atlanta.
Veteran Matt Crafton equaled his career-best finish with a hard-fought third-place finish in his ThorSport Racing Chevrolet. His truck sustained spoiler damage during the race's opening-lap accident and needed two trips to the pits for repairs, but from the back of the field he then patiently marched through traffic and into his first top-5 of the season.
"We didn't have anything for the top two trucks, but we definitely had a third-place truck. I could hold it wide open for 15 or 20 laps, and it's the first time I've been able to do that here," said Crafton, who made his 150th start in the series but is still looking for his first win.
Rick Crawford recorded his third top-10 in as many races and first top-5, finishing fourth in the No. 14 Ford. He was also making a milestone start, his 250th, and fared much better than the driver sharing that same spotlight. Jack Sprague started on the front row but finished 23rd, one lap down.
Finishing sixth was Brendan Gaughan, rebounding from two 21st-place finishes in the season's opening races.
He made an out-of-sequence pit stop on Lap 77, making key adjustments and taking on tires and fuel that would go the rest of the race. When the leaders pitted on Lap 89 under caution, Gaughan moved into the lead for the first time this season. He would eventually relinquish the top spot but held on for a solid finish in the South Point Racing Chevrolet.
"We were awful for a long time, they kept working and [crew chief Bryan Berry] kept making great calls," Gaughan said. "At the end of the day, he went on a fuel-mileage strategy and then he ended up with a great-handling Chevrolet."
Also landing in the top 10 was Dennis Setzer, driving with a new man on top of the pit box. Two 19th-place finishes to start the season prompted the team to move Tom Ackerman to crew chief for Atlanta, and the Spears Manufacturing Chevrolet finished seventh.
The June 30 O'Reilly 200 at Memphis Motorsports Park will be dedicated to the late Bobby Hamilton, who won there in 2004 on the way to the series title. Though a Toyota has won the season's first three races, the manufacturer has a while to go to match the series record for consecutive wins. That would be eight, by Chevrolet (1995) and Dodge (2001). The truck series is off this week, returning March 31 with its first short-track race of the season, the Kroger 250 at the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.