- John Schwarb
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Travis Kvapil has enjoyed breakthrough days before at Michigan International Speedway. He'll forever be the answer to a good trivia question, having claimed the first NASCAR national event win for Toyota in a 2004 Craftsman Truck Series race at MIS.
Saturday's win at the Michigan 200 wasn't as historic, but for Kvapil it was no less significant. Finally, in his 10th start in the acclaimed No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Kvapil lived up to considerable preseason billing.
"I didn't feel like I was under a crazy amount of pressure, but I knew I had to win a race," Kvapil said. "Jack Roush hired me to win races. We marked this on the calendar as a race we needed to perform at. It's almost a sense of relief to finally get that win, to get that behind us."
Kvapil, the 2003 series champion, was signed by Roush to drive the truck that Mark Martin piloted to six wins in 14 starts last year. He was the fastest in January testing at Daytona and nearly won the season opener until the Toyota camp teamed up on the last lap and sent Jack Sprague and Johnny Benson to the line ahead of the Ford.
There appeared no reason why the 31-year-old wouldn't win soon after and consistently run up front. But he didn't.
Not until the seventh race of the season at Mansfield, Ohio, did Kvapil collect another top-10. It was a baffling three-month stretch.
"We got this 2007 [new] nose and some of the things we did over the winter we thought were going to be better, but once we ran a couple races we decided we needed to redo our program," crew chief Mike Beam said.
The notebook the team compiled a year ago with Martin was of no use with the new body style, and that combined with the new driver/crew chief combination required a period of learning and rebuilding.
"We were trying to get to know each other and trying to figure out new setups, too," Kvapil said. "On a couple trucks we cut the bodies off and started over, then took them to the wind tunnel. Those are the trucks that are really working for us right now."
The turnaround began at Kansas. Kvapil was in the midst of his five consecutive finishes outside the top 10, but teammate Erik Darnell won, showing that the organization was on the right course with its adjustments.
Two races later, Kvapil ran seventh at Mansfield, then was third at Dover, Del.
Two weeks ago at Texas he had the lead with four laps remaining, but Todd Bodine got into the back of him, sending him spinning toward the inside wall on Turn 1. Bodine, the defending champion, went on to collect his first win of the year.
"Todd just got a good draft on me," Kvapil said. "I was disappointed, I thought there was no way I would have got turned around on the straightaway. You can't just run into the back of somebody, that's how it went down. At the same time it was a racing accident, he was coming and he had to make a move. That's just part of it."
That frustration was wiped away at Michigan when Kvapil made a late move of his own, passing Kyle Busch on the penultimate lap and holding on for his sixth truck series win. Doing it ahead of a Nextel Cup regular was a nice bonus -- Kvapil spent the previous two years in Cup with no success, but he hopes to eventually return after regaining his winning form in the truck series.
"It makes me feel pretty good that I can run neck-and-neck with one of the best of them out there," said Kvapil, who moved from sixth to fourth in points, 265 behind leader Mike Skinner.
Milwaukee Mile spreads the love
The truck series returns to one of its mainstay tracks Friday night for the Toyota Tundra Milwaukee 200 at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.
There have been 11 different winners in 12 races at the flat oval with only Wisconsin native Ted Musgrave owning multiple victories, in 2001 and 2004.
"Milwaukee is a tricky racetrack to get around, very flat, not much banking and it's hard to get grip," said Musgrave, sixth in points in his Germain Racing Toyota. "You won't see a boring race. You'll see a lot of passing going on."
If recent history holds, perhaps the points race will tighten a bit. Leader Skinner has finished outside the top 10 in his last three Milwaukee starts, while second-place driver Ron Hornaday has an average finish of 3.6 in seven starts at the track. Kvapil, fourth in points and another Wisconsinite, also has had success at the mile with four top-10 efforts in as many starts. Last year's race was won by Johnny Benson, who is currently seventh in points.
Milwaukee is one of four tracks to have held races in every year of the series' existence, the others being Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis and Phoenix International Raceway.
Brendan Gaughan of South Point Racing finished third at Michigan, his highest finish of the season. Bill Davis Racing rookie Ryan Mathews signed to drive a minimum of five more races in the No. 36 Toyota. He took over in May for the suspended Tyler Walker and has three top-20s in four starts. Points leader Skinner has led laps in every race, 535 in all. A total of 1,605 laps have been turned on the season, so he has led exactly one-third of them.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Travis Kvapil nearly won the season-opening Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona, but that was followed by some puzzling struggles. He finally broke through at Michigan, and that came as a relief, writes John Schwarb.