- John Schwarb
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AROUND THE GARAGE
That wouldn't be cause for celebration in most Toyota garages in the Craftsman Truck Series, but it was for a team that has endured a particularly long 2007 season.
Through the first dozen races of the year, the third-year one-truck operation thrived with a rookie-of-the-year front-runner in Aaron Fike. After a career-best fifth-place finish at Memphis in late June, Fike and Red Horse found themselves eighth in points.
Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner remain joined at the hip in NASCAR's tightest points race, but neither has shown his best form recently. Both found trouble last month at Las Vegas, with Skinner finishing 13th and Hornaday 22nd, and Talladega Superspeedway two weeks ago lived up to its wild-card status with Hornaday taking seventh and Skinner 13th again.
Look for one, if not both, to return to the top-5 Saturday at the half-mile bullring at Martinsville.
Hornaday, now 14 points in front of Skinner thanks to Talladega, finished sixth in the Martinsville spring race and will return for the Kroger 200 with the same Chevrolet he drove to a win at .686-mile O'Reilly Raceway Park in July.
Skinner won the spring race, capping an early-season three-race win streak. He led 246 of 253 laps in one of the most dominant performances in series history.
GET USED TO IT
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will be Sprint Cup teammates next year at Joe Gibbs Racing but won't have to wait until February at Daytona to race together. Both will drive Chevrolets at Martinsville for Billy Ballew Motorsports, Busch in the No. 51 he has driven in six races this year, Hamlin in the No. 15.
"We're going to be teammates next year bur we're great friends off the track, so it will be kind of the first time that we will be comparing notes and actually on the same team," Busch said. "It's going to be pretty cool."
Hamlin, a Virginia native, last drove a truck in the 2006 Kroger 200 at Martinsville and finished eighth.
There could be two Skinners in the truck series next year: Mike and 22-year-old son Dustin, who was impressive last week at a test in New Smyrna, Fla. "Heck, he ran just as fast as I did, and I don't know any rookies that have ever done that," Mike said. The family is hoping to find sponsorship and enter Dustin in a few races in 2008. ... Hermie Sadler has not made a truck start since 2000 but is entered to run the No. 71 Chevrolet at Martinsville. Fast Track Racing, owned by Andy Hillenburg, has made seven previous starts this season. ... Colin Braun, a 19-year-old developmental driver for Roush Fenway Racing, will make his first NASCAR start in the No. 50 Ford. ... Could Saturday's winner go the distance on one tank of gas? Dennis Setzer won in May at Mansfield, Ohio, without pitting; that race was 125 miles, though 51 were run under caution. The Kroger 200 is 105.2 miles. "There will be some folks that try to make it this year, but I think you really need to stop," said Germain Racing's Ted Musgrave, who drove a no-stop strategy last year and led 105 laps but finished 15th.
But truck fans know how that story ended; Fike was arrested one weekend after Memphis at a Cincinnati-area amusement park. He and his fiancée were charged with heroin possession and NASCAR swiftly suspended Fike.
The team continued on and didn't miss a race, putting Kentucky native David Green in the seat for the Kentucky race, where he finished fifth. But that momentum slowed as Green failed to return to the top 10 over the next six races.
So imagine the enthusiasm when Jason Leffler, the team's third driver of the season, was hired and finished fourth right out of the gate.
"We were very pleased; it was nice [to hear] the excitement coming over the radio from the driver," Red Horse Racing general manager and co-owner Tom DeLoach said. "It was a good shot in the arm for us. We had been on the frustrating side."
It could have been a frustrating day for Leffler, who punched a hole in the front of the Tundra on the first lap at Talladega when a few trucks bunched up on the backstretch. For the rest of the race, his truck couldn't lead the draft, but it could run in the middle. So Leffler stayed there until the end, following fellow Toyota driver Benson and trying to push him to the win, though Kvapil prevailed.
Leffler, fourth in points in his full-time Busch ride with Braun Racing, will drive four of the five remaining races for Red Horse (Brandon Whitt, the team's first driver in 2005, will drive at Atlanta), which hopes to continue the Talladega momentum.
"It's a good situation, I'm helping them and they're helping me," Leffler said. "Anytime you run good, it helps both parties."
It also helps for the team to move further away from a difficult summer. Fike's arrest caught everyone on the team by surprise; DeLoach didn't even know until he got a phone call from NASCAR.
"Then we were off to crisis management," he said. "A young man made a bad decision. It's unfortunate -- it's one that your heart goes out to him, but you also have a race team that's going racing. We had to do something."
The short-term answer was easy; Green had been Fike's driving coach. But when Green's results became stagnant, the next answer was not so easy. Leffler's name soon surfaced from a number of sources, including Aaron's father, Don. Leffler and Fike raced USAC cars together.
"I was familiar with the whole race team through Don and Aaron; I know they were pretty excited about the year. Aaron was running good -- it was just unfortunate there," Leffler said.
DeLoach said Fike is in a rehabilitation program, and discussions of his returning to racing are well down the road. (Fike still has court dates pending.) For now, the team hopes to line up sponsors for 2008 and find a new full-time driver. Leffler won't be the man because of his Busch deal, but he can continue to help make Red Horse Racing look attractive to potential suitors and drivers.
"It's a great team to be involved with," Leffler said.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red Horse Racing stumbled out of the gate, but new driver Jason Leffler has the truck team in a full gallop, writes John Schwarb.