- John Schwarb
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Mike Skinner laughs heartily at the memories of Martinsville, April 1986. His Zanworth Racing Team went to the track with its rebuilt Pontiac towed behind a rusted old Chevy truck, with spare parts loaded in stolen milk crates.
"We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies," he said.
Enhancing the look was the driver of the No. 19, racing with a broken hand. One night prior to arriving at the track, Skinner was beating on the car with a hammer at 4 a.m. only to have one swipe catch bone instead of metal. Sitting out the race, however, never entered his mind. It was his first Winston Cup start, and he finished 22nd out of 31 cars.
Contrast that with Martinsville, March 2007. Skinner's Bill Davis Racing factory-sponsored Toyota Tundra team arrives as the top dog in the Craftsman Truck Series -- with no stolen milk crates on its gleaming hauler -- and leaves no doubt on race day, leading all but seven of 253 laps to collect a third consecutive victory and extend an early lead in series points.
It's been that kind of career for a driver once called a "20-year overnight success" by one of his team managers. And that was a dozen years ago, during his first go-round of truck series domination.
Today, some two months shy of 50, Mike Skinner is doing it again.
"I planned on retiring this year, but I signed up for three more," he said. "I'm having too much fun. To be honest with you, I haven't figured out what I'm going to do when I grow up."
Now he can say that and smile, having an old racer's maturity to go with his youthful spirit. He wasn't always that way.
The native Californian's first big break after years of running late models around the Carolinas and Virginia (and a smattering of Cup and Busch starts along the way for various small owners) was in a Richard Childress Racing truck in 1995. Driving a familiar black GM Goodwrench No. 3, Skinner tore up the inaugural year of the Craftsman Truck Series, winning eight races and seven poles in 20 events and finishing in the top-5 of all but three. He won the points title and didn't do a bad job of defending in 1996, finishing third overall but winning eight races again.
Those two seasons earned him a promotion to a Childress Cup car. Before Jimmie Johnson was winning races and championships in a Lowe's Chevrolet, Skinner drove that car as the No. 31 for RCR. He was Dale Earnhardt's teammate, and a 40-year-old rookie.
"They had a lot of fun with that yellow [rookie] tape on the back of the 31 car," Skinner said. "But to be honest, I was a rookie; I acted like a rookie. I had gotten so used to running up front in the truck series, winning races, dominating. We had a lot of Cup guys racing with us in '95-96; we'd beat them most of the time. My Cup rookie year, I expected the same thing -- we'd win two, three races and finish in the top three or four in points. Next thing I knew, I was racing harder than I ever had in my life for 25th spot and thinking, 'Wow, this is different.' It was a big learning curve."
It had its moments, as Skinner was rookie of the year in 1997 and sat on the pole for both Daytona races, and in 1999 he had five top-5s and finished 10th in points. But wins in points races never came, and Skinner's reputation in Cup became one of a hard-charging racer but, dubiously, one of the best to not have ever won a race.
"I planned on retiring this year, but I signed up for three more. I'm having too much fun. To be honest with you, I haven't figured out what I'm going to do when I grow up."
-- Mike Skinner
"Gosh, we came so close the two and a half years I was with him; it just wasn't meant to be," said Larry McReynolds, Skinner's crew chief from 1998-2000 and now a race analyst for Fox. "The biggest thing Mike figured out is you can't always sit on every pole, you can't win every race. Sometimes for [the] big picture, you've got to take what it will give you and walk away that day. That's why we had a couple successful runs in the points -- we figured it out together."
Skinner also figured out the business side of the sport the hard way. He drove hurt late in his Childress career, thinking he needed to stick with the team instead of taking significant time off from injuries. By the time his body healed, his time was up at RCR and he had to settle for a ride in the Morgan-McClure Motorsports No. 4, which he drove for 2002 and part of 2003 with little success. He finished the 2003 season in the MB2 Motorsports U.S. Army car, replacing the injured Jerry Nadeau.
But just as his full-time Cup options were drying up, a perfect opportunity arose in his old stomping grounds, the truck series. Toyota was joining the series and wanted talent, and Skinner's old crew chief knew just who to call.
"I was helping [Bang Racing] put together a team, and I can say I knew Mike, and I knew the biggest thing he wanted to do was win races and compete for championships," McReynolds said. "It took me a while to convince him, but I said, 'Unless you can get back in a Childress [Cup] car, I know you, you might like the paycheck, but I know you're not going to like not being competitive.'"
Skinner signed up, and by the end of 2004 he was running the Tundra for Bill Davis Racing. In 2005, Skinner returned to the winner's circle for the first time in a truck since 1996 with back-to-back wins at Bristol and Richmond, and then he added another win in 2006 at Las Vegas.
His hard-charging style was as alive as ever, though that could go both ways. In 2005 and 2006 he won 15 poles but didn't always stay out of trouble on race day. The same drive that leads a man to breaking his hand at 4 a.m. working on a car could still work against him.
"Last year at Homestead [in the finale] we had an awesome truck on the pole and led the first 10 laps," crew chief Jeff Hensley said. "Then, on a restart, instead of being patient and following and trying to make a move, we got loose and wrecked. All winter long, Mike had to look at himself in the mirror and say, 'I've got to be able to harness this aggression; let's be smart.'
"He's done that. We're not really doing a whole heck of a lot different now than last year on the trucks. He's just given us an opportunity to work on our trucks, make them better, and he's really giving us feedback."
Some feedback. After a fourth in the opener at Daytona, Skinner and the No. 5 team have been flawless, winning at California, Atlanta and Martinsville and making it look progressively easier each time.
"Mike and Jeff have been really good the last two years. They've run really well, but they just had a lot of bad luck," said 2006 champion Todd Bodine, a fellow Toyota driver currently second in points. "Finally, luck is not only not going their way, they're not having any luck, no bad and no good. They're just racing like they know how. They're going to be tough."
Along the way, Skinner has revised his reputation from a close-but-no-checkers Cup driver to one of the best to run the trucks.
"I don't think we have ever seen or totally have been able to see how talented of a race-car driver he is. He has super car control. He can take cars that are extremely loose and get the most out of it," McReynolds said. "I do think today, with the truck series, we're starting to see just how talented of a cat he really is."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.