- John Schwarb
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Joey Clanton's opportunity at racing's highest level came and went. Between 18 races in the Busch Series in 2003 and two Craftsman Truck Series races at the beginning of 2004, the former dirt-track and late-model driver simply came up short.
That was his chance. That was just how it was going to be.
"I was done racing. I was so frustrated," he said. "It was just frustrating to the point where it wasn't what I wanted to do or what was going to be my career. Having family, taking care of my wife it wasn't all about the racing."
So Clanton put big-time racing in his rearview, opening a couple of restaurants in his native Georgia and "keeping [his motorsports] addiction going," as he called it, by managing an American Speedway Association (ASA) late-model team, far from the spotlight of NASCAR-level competition.
He never expected to get back. Yet here he is, battling alongside the big names of the Craftsman Truck Series. Clanton, driving the No. 09 Ford part time for Wood Brothers/JTG Racing, has two top-10s in two starts this season and is one point behind Aaron Fike in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race.
A second chance just happened to arrive, and he's running with it.
"I told my wife, 'This is my second chance,'" said the 34-year-old, who finished in the top 10 only once in his first Busch/Trucks stint. "Some get three, four, five, chances. This is mine. I've got to make the most of it."
Clanton came back into the truck series through the sponsorship door. While operating two Zaxby's restaurants, he found out that the company's owners wanted to get into racing. The only stipulation was, if possible, to land a Ford deal (one owner's father worked for Ford), so Clanton hit the road to try to find the right fit.
That came with Wood Brothers/JTG, which is running two trucks this season -- the No. 09 and the No. 21 with rookie Kelly Bires and Mark Martin. Clanton brought the key sponsorship money and his own driving ability, which included a 2002 ASA championship and a history of success dating to his father, Billy Clanton, who was a dirt-track ace.
"I don't think I had to prove anything there," Clanton said. "The biggest thing is proving to myself that I wanted to be here. With that, I had to go back and prove that it wasn't a fluke that I got there before."
Clanton's second time through the truck series is no fluke. He ran sixth at Daytona and ninth at Atlanta, working through adversity (at Atlanta his radio went out) to stay up with the leaders.
The challenge is to keep up that pace. Clanton's current deal in the No. 09 is to run 16 races -- all in Zaxby's markets -- with veteran driver and ESPN NASCAR commentator Stacy Compton running the other nine. Compton finished 12th at California. (Interestingly, the Ford qualified 18th in all three races.)
Clanton is hoping his continued success can lure more sponsorship money, allowing him to make more starts in an attempt to win rookie of the year. The formula for earning rookie of the year points is complex (there are even points awarded for good conduct), but it mostly depends on getting plenty of starts. Fike, the current rookie points leader, is slated to run the full schedule for Red Horse Racing.
"My goal is to win it. Just the way the points run out, you need to run all year long," said Clanton, who will race this weekend at Martinsville. "All I can do right now is try to perform and be the best. Finishing the races, getting top-10s, getting the attention of other drivers, other owners, that this is how I can drive smart and drive fast when I need to drive fast."
Two races into that second chance, Clanton is getting it done.
Off to Martinsville
This week the Craftsman Truck Series travels to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for the first short-track event of the season. The .526-mile paper-clip-shaped oval is known for testing drivers' patience just as much as their equipment, and last year's spring race featured 16 cautions for 86 laps, both tops among the 16 truck races at Martinsville.
"There's guys that you're able to work with and give and take, and there's guys that want to do all give and no take," said Mike Skinner, the points leader who will try for his third consecutive win in Saturday's Kroger 250. "If somebody's faster than you, you have to have poise to let them go. It takes a lot of patience."
Martinsville, which also has a fall race, is one of four tracks to play host to the trucks in each year of the series' history, along with The Milwaukee Mile, O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis and Phoenix International Raceway. Its 16 races have had 15 different winners, including David Starr and Jack Sprague last year.
A total of 43 trucks were on the preliminary qualifying list for Martinsville, so there should be a full field of 36 racing for the first time since the season opener at Daytona. Longtime NASCAR veteran Joe Ruttman will race seven times this season, starting April 28 at Kansas Speedway. He will drive the No. 18 Dodge for Bobby Hamilton Racing on weeks when regular driver Ken Schrader has Nextel Cup duty. Ruttman, 62, has 13 truck wins with his most recent at Pikes Peak in 2001 at age 56.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.