- John Schwarb
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Maybe a championship would get Tom Mitchell out to the racetrack. That would be quite a sight at Homestead, Fla., in November -- Rick Crawford accepting the Craftsman Truck Series title for Circle Bar Racing alongside his owner.
Nah, it's highly unlikely. But not the part about Crawford and a title, mind you.
The No. 14 Ford has been quietly lurking all season, steadily improving and climbing to third in the points standings. Since a 10th-place effort at Daytona in the season opener, the veteran Crawford has driven to finishes of ninth, fourth, third and second, most recently at Kansas.
A win would be the natural next step in the progression, especially since Crawford claims not to have run a spotless race despite high finishes.
"I just don't think we've reached our potential yet," Crawford said. "I've always said you must have a perfect race, and from the first race at Daytona to the last race at Kansas, our races haven't been the perfect scenario yet. It's lacking just a little bit.
"But it wouldn't surprise me if we stepped up to the plate and won a race soon. It's all about working hard, that's just what's going on."
It's been going on for 11 years with Crawford and Circle Bar Racing, the longest marriage in the history of the circuit, having started two years after the Craftsman Truck Series began and continuing for 252 consecutive races and counting.
Crawford, 48, is the consistently solid veteran driver, with five career wins, just over $4 million in career earnings (as of last month's race at Kansas) and four finishes in the top 10 in points, including a runner-up finish in 2002.
His boss is the consistently reclusive Tom Mitchell. In a sport filled with high-profile owners like Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Chip Ganassi -- always found in the garage or atop a pit box -- Mitchell is a virtual Greta Garbo. Instead of putting in time at Daytona, Talladega and the other regular stops in NASCAR-land, Mitchell is content to stay far behind the scenes, usually at his homes in western Texas hamlets Ozona and Sonora.
In 11 years, Mitchell has never seen his Circle Bar Racing trucks compete in person.
"He's very passionate about his racing; the fact that he doesn't attend races is not an indicator of his passion for it," said Lisa Karnes, Mitchell's daughter and general manager of Circle Bar Racing (Mitchell does not speak to the media). "He's just a west Texas rancher, he enjoys the limelight of having a successful team but he's one of those people that enjoys watching it through Rick's career."
Mitchell grew up with a love of engines, fixing everything around the family ranch and hanging out at the local Ford dealership in Ozona. After serving in the Air Force he began a cattle-ranching business in the mid-1950s, creating a cattle brand out of a piece of metal and a coffee container -- hence the "circle bar" brand.
He made his fortunes through natural gas and oil from his ranch land, and in the late 1970s took some of his wealth into racing, sponsoring driver and fellow Texan Chet Fillip in late-model stocks. In 1982-83, Fillip ran in the Indianapolis 500 and raced in CART under the Circle Bar name (which now adorns a motel and RV park in Ozona). Mitchell was more intimately involved in those days, traveling the circuit and even driving the team hauler.
By the late 1980s, Mitchell and Circle Bar Racing had sold off their open-wheel cars and returned to late-model stocks. In 1992, Mitchell sold some equipment to Crawford, who excelled in the Slim Jim All Pro series, an old NASCAR touring division. The following year they forged a partner/sponsor relationship, racing in the All Pro series through 1996.
In 1997, Circle Bar sold all the All Pro equipment and dove into the Craftsman Truck Series. Mitchell put it in Crawford's hands, with one truck and one engine at first. The 1997 season opener, at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, had more than 60 cars attempting to qualify for 36 spots.
"They were sending people home right and left. It was nerve-racking to say the least," Crawford remembered. "But we started 24th and finished 11th, a really good day for us. The second race, we ran the same truck, same engine. We were taking it week by week."
That first season Crawford drove in all the events, picked up 10 top-10s and was 12th in points, well on his way. He won the second race of his second season in 1998, and in 2001 began a streak of three years in the top 10 in points.
This year, there's another truck in the stable. Circle Bar added a second Ford team, with four-time winner David Starr joining the multicar NASCAR arms race.
"The situation was, did we need to give 23 people a job? Did we need to give a driver out of work a job? Did we need a three-time champion crew chief [in Dennis Connor, who worked with Jack Sprague]? The answer is no, we did it to enhance the performance of the 14 truck," Crawford said. "It's very, very difficult for a single-truck team to become a fierce competitor [for championships]."
Five races into the 2007 season, Crawford is a serious contender, with his best shot to fill the one glaring omission on his distinguished trucks résumé.
"I think with a little bit more experience and a little bit better equipment, we could have won the championship [earlier]. But I believe that's what we have this year," Crawford said. "We've got the experience, the equipment, the desire, we know what it takes. It just has to go our way. That's one of the things that drives me."
That and living up to an owner who stays involved but is never in sight.
"I'm not really looking for that to change," Crawford said. "But it would be a proud honor someday. Hopefully he wouldn't be disappointed with the product he saw at the racetrack.
"I don't think I've let him down."
McCumbee jumping into Cup car
Green Light Racing's Chad McCumbee was tabbed last week as a replacement for Kyle Petty in the Nextel Cup Series. Petty is taking five races off to work as a commentator for TNT, and John Andretti and McCumbee were selected to drive the No. 45 Dodge in his absence.
McCumbee, 22, is scheduled to compete at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway June 10. To prepare, he will complete various testing duties for Petty Enterprises. He tested with the rest of the Cup regulars earlier this week at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
McCumbee, in his second year in the truck series, is 18th in points with a season-best finish of 13th at Daytona. He was runner-up in the rookie of the year race last year behind Erik Darnell.
Maybe Johnny Benson brought some good Toyota truck karma to Nextel Cup. At last week's race at Richmond he successfully qualified Wyler Racing's entry in its first Car of Tomorrow race, ahead of several Toyota Camrys that had been running all season. Benson, seventh in truck series points for Bill Davis Racing, started and finished 31st. Kelly Sutton's first race of the season ended early at Kansas when she was sent spinning after contact with Benson. She is scheduled to race again May 18 at Mansfield (Ohio) Motorsports Park.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
With solid backing by Circle Bar Racing and reclusive team owner Tom Mitchell, Rick Crawford has attained about every goal in Craftsman Trucks -- except a season title, writes John Schwarb.