- John Schwarb
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AROUND THE GARAGE
As Talladega afternoons go, last year's was downright peaceful for the inaugural visit from the Craftsman Truck Series.
Not until the second-to-last turn of the last lap did a multitruck accident bring a caution flag, allowing Mark Martin to coast across the finish line as the winner. More trucks bowed out early from the 94-lap race due to engine problems than the patented "big ones" common to the 2.66-mile high-banked superspeedway.
BODINE MAY STAY FOR 2008
Defending series champion Todd Bodine may not be going to the Nationwide Series next year, as previously announced last month by Germain Racing.
Germain planned on expanding to three teams with Bodine trading his No. 30 Toyota Tundra for a Camry, but those plans could change if the newly named Nationwide circuit runs a COT-type car in 2009, as rumored.
"We don't want to waste our money building a bunch of cars that we can't use in a year. They're going to be junk," Bodine said. "We don't have to be in [Nationwide]. If we stay in trucks another year, that's fine."
Then, when the time comes to make a move, Germain may just go to the top of the NASCAR ladder.
"We want to grow the business, that would be the [Nationwide] series at this time," Bodine said. "But being that it's COT cars, we might just skip that and go straight to Cup if we get the funding."
WALLACE RUNNING THIRD GERMAIN TRUCK
Mike Wallace drove the first lap of the season opener at Daytona, crashed and thought he was probably done with trucks for the year, having a full Busch schedule to run.
But his prowess on superspeedways makes him an attractive one-off candidate, so Germain Racing hired Wallace to drive its third Toyota Tundra at Talladega.
"It's a weekend off from my regular schedule in the Busch Series, but I'm not calling this a vacation. We're going to Talladega with the intention of winning," said Wallace, a four-time winner in Busch and Craftsman Truck, including one win at Daytona in each series.
Wallace is reuniting with several men from his racing past. Mike Hillman Sr., Germain Racing's general manager, worked for the A.J. Foyt-owned team Wallace drove for in 2002. Wallace's best years in the truck series, 1999-2000, were with Ultra Motorsports, and one of its crewmen was Jason Overstreet, who will now serve as crew chief of Wallace's No. 03.
Wallace drove a Billy Ballew Motorsports truck last year at Talladega, finishing 26th after being involved in the race's last-lap crash.
"For some reason, I seem to have some extra knowledge of racing at the superspeedways," Wallace said. "Last year in the truck series debut at Talladega, with the track repaved and smooth, we had a blast."
Ken Schrader's Cup car is holding on to the precarious 35th and final exempt position in owner points, which is great news for Dennis Setzer in the truck series. The 17-time truck winner will drive Schrader's No. 18 Dodge for the second consecutive race at Talladega. "Schrader decided he wanted to concentrate on his Cup deal," said Setzer, who was seventh in the Bobby Hamilton Racing entry last time out at Las Vegas. Setzer said he will run the No. 18 at least two more times this season, at Texas and Homestead, Fla. Busch Series regular Jason Leffler will drive the Red Horse Racing No. 1 Toyota for five of the final six races starting at Talladega. David Green had previously piloted the No. 1, making seven starts following the suspension of Aaron Fike. Leffler last drove a truck in 2004 and has one win, in 2003. After Talladega, the series will have one more week off before finishing the year with five consecutive races, all at tracks hosting Chase for the Nextel Cup events.
Sure, it was a day of side-by-side racing and freight-train drafting, but in its debut event, the trucks and Talladega were fairly tame together.
Don't expect an encore performance Saturday.
"Last year everybody tried to mind their P's and Q's because it was our first one, it was pretty amazing until the end. I don't know if you'll see it that calm this year," South Point Racing driver Brendan Gaughan said. "This year everybody's going to be a little more aggressive."
It should be quite a show in the Mountain Dew 250, a worthy undercard to Sunday's Nextel Cup race. (The Busch Series is off this weekend.) For all the curiosity about how Cup's COT will fare in its first spin around NASCAR's biggest oval, the trucks offer plenty of intrigue as well.
Mike Skinner and Ron Hornaday are locked in the series' closest championship battle ever with six races remaining, with Skinner ahead by three points. It's a margin that can be erased in a flash, and that could come with just the slightest misstep in the middle of a drafting pack at Talladega.
Todd Bodine knows the feeling. He went to 'Dega with a 91-point lead last year but was as nervous as if it were three points.
"It's really hard, you try to tell yourself you're not going to worry about it, but you know in the back of your mind that someone else's mistake can take you right out of the points race," Bodine said.
Last year, Bodine made his own mistake with 10 laps to go, passing Martin below the yellow line and receiving a black flag from race officials. He was sent to the tail end of the lead pack and was 26th with four laps to go, only to frantically work his way through the last few laps in the draft and finish a remarkable fourth, salvaging a good points day in what would be a championship season.
Like the Cup cars and their restrictor plates, the trucks can have such drastic swings in the draft with the tapered spacers used to adjust engines' intake. ("They don't like the word 'restrictor,' Ted Musgrave said, laughing). These cone-shaped pieces, placed underneath the carburetors, reduce horsepower and prevent the trucks from reaching dangerously high top-end speeds.
Of course, the result is a bunched field and drivers on edge for two hours, worrying when disaster will strike and hoping it doesn't swallow their ride.
"It's gonna happen, it's just when and where," said Musgrave, who finished third last year. "You want to be in the first couple rows [of the draft], that is a good place to be usually. Those people, the reason they're up there is they utilize their head. Hang around that group, your race will be good. There's too many desperate people in the back."
There's also plenty of inexperience. From rookie-of-the-year contenders who have only run one superspeedway race (the opener at Daytona) to even greener drivers such as former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, making only his second truck start and first at such a wild venue, the variables exist for mayhem.
"I know Hornaday, [Jack] Sprague, Skinner, you know what these guys will do. Going with guys with no experience at these tracks is not a feeling you'd like," said Gaughan, 12th last year and fourth in a Cup car at Talladega in 2004. "Nothing against those guys, if I'm going to go that fast next to somebody, I'd like to be able to pick and choose who I'm next to. But it doesn't always work out that way."
It may not work out that way, then in the closing laps it's an all-you-can-eat. Last year's sudden last-lap yellow meant sorting out the field behind the winner via scoring loops, and Gaughan remembers arguing in the truck series hauler an hour after the checkered flag, poring over the video with tape measures in hand trying to figure whose bumper was inches ahead of another's at the moment the field was frozen.
That was crazy, though long after the action on the track ended. Saturday, things could get much more interesting, much earlier.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.