Ricky Craven didn't know what to expect when he moved to the Craftsman Truck Series this season. After years in Nextel Cup racing, he had to step back and reassess his career when a solid ride at NASCAR's highest level wasn't available.
Stepping away from racing for a season was a possibility, but one that didn't appeal to his competitive nature. So when Jack Roush offered him a ride in his No. 99 Ford F-150, Craven accepted.
Third in points heading to the May 15 race in Mansfield, Ohio, Craven seems to be adjusting well to the challenges presented by his latest endeavor.
"It's been a good start and I want to give that credit where it belongs: Roush Racing," Craven said. "The organization is everything that I expected, perhaps even exceeded my expectations. They deserve the credit. The Superchips Ford team has done a wonderful job. They continue to improve, and I appreciate them and am thankful to be racing with them.
"It's been a great start for us. Our concern during the offseason as we looked forward to a new season and a new series and a new opportunity was probably the first five races. I wasn't unfamiliar with the tracks, but it was certainly a big learning curve for all of us.
"The opportunity to race with [crew chief] Mike Beam has helped because I have a crew chief that I've raced with, had success with, and been to victory lane with in the Nextel Cup Series. So with that and the enthusiasm the team brings, it's been a great start and a great group of people to race with and I have enjoyed the season so far."
What Craven doesn't enjoy is the speculation about 2006. Mark Martin is leaving Roush's No. 6 Ford after this season and plans to run in the truck series as his stellar career winds down.
Roush has said Craven is on a short list of candidates to take over the Nextel Cup ride, but told NASCAR Scene that ability won't be the only factor in determining who takes the wheel. Sponsorship considerations will play a role, as the car's eventual sponsor will have to sign off on Martin's replacement.
But Roush is enjoying having Craven as part of his team.
"This truck series involvement with him is a coming-out party. Ricky is not willing to say [too much]," Roush told NASCAR Scene last month. "Mark Martin is anxious to get in the truck series and really do some serious racing for a number of years there. But Ricky is anxious to do some serious racing still in the Cup series. For him to re-establish himself and gain some more prestige and recognition for what he can do and what his motivations are in the truck series to [enjoy] success is something that's very important to him now.
"Of course, I recognize that it would be a chance for him to get his program back on track and really get a winning momentum going. It's a win-win relationship for both of us."
While a return to Nextel Cup competition is Craven's goal, he dances around the issue when it's brought up.
"I think it is remote to discuss any idea of me being any part of the No. 6 team next year. But having said that, I think it is a fair question because there's certainly some interest and there's been some discussion," Craven said. "Not really as much discussion on my end as there has been among fans and perhaps some of the media. But to be clear, that's an interest of mine.
"It's an interest because I have a desire to get back to the Nextel Cup Series level and compete and have success. That's part of why this path I've chosen, to be part of Roush Racing, is so exciting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity. The fact is, I've got a job to do, and I'm excited about this opportunity and I want to capitalize on it and I don't want to make the mistake of being distracted by something else and allow that to have a negative effect on what the Superchips Ford team is doing.
"If we don't give 100 percent to this effort, we'll fail miserably, and I'm not interested in that happening. I'm looking forward to the remainder of the season. Maybe as we get down the road a bit, it'll pop up again, and it will be more of a real discussion."
The Craftsman Truck Series eases into its 25-race schedule, and the start of the season isn't the week-to-week grind Craven is accustomed to. While he's used some of that free time to spend with his wife and three children, he's also spent plenty of time testing.
And except for Atlanta, where the team struggled, Craven's been near the front of the pack virtually every time out. It helped that he'd turned plenty of laps at Daytona, Fontana, Atlanta and Martinsville, the first four tracks on the schedule. Gateway was a bit of a challenge, but he was headed toward a top-five finish until contact with Mike Skinner on the last lap dropped him to 10th.
"I've got to say that I was not surprised by the competition. I knew coming into this that it would be very difficult, and it is very difficult," Craven said. "Nobody should take this thing lightly. The Craftsman Truck Series has great balance, great depth, and as a series has come a long way in the 10 years it has existed."
Still, the chance of returning to the Nextel Cup drives Craven. He almost got in Kurt Busch's car at Texas, when the defending Nextel Cup champion was battling the effects of several hard crashes.
Craven spent the race in Busch's pit, but wasn't needed. Still, he says that further opened his eyes to what it's like working for Roush Racing.
"An example of the fraternity, if you will, is having the opportunity to go to Texas," Craven said. "I had some great communication with [Busch] before the race, actually listening during the race, and then I flew home with Kurt after the Texas race. I've had that since I've been here. I like having access to other drivers' opinions, perspectives, but I also like the opportunity for Mike Beam to communicate with other team members within Roush Racing. I just can't believe how well that works, and what an asset that is."
When Craven finished second behind Bobby Labonte at Martinsville, fans almost got a chance to see how Craven would react in victory lane. That question has yet to be fully answered, but one certainty is that he won't follow in the driving shoes of his predecessor in the No. 99 truck.
No, Craven will leave the acrobatics to Carl Edwards.
"I'm not going to try and duplicate Carl Edwards' back flips or any of the other great accomplishments he's had," Craven said. "I have got my own agenda along with this Superchips team, and we want to win. Every one of these events that we enter, we want to win. Bottom line, however, is that we're going to exhaust ourselves in an attempt to be Craftsman Truck Series champion in 2005 and be the championship team, and that's a tall order.
"We've got great concern, and we are working hard to do that because gosh, I look at the teams we are competing with week in and out, and I've got great respect for Bobby Hamilton, Dennis Setzer, Ron Hornaday, Ted Musgrave and Jimmy Spencer and Johnny Benson and on and on and on. I'm enjoying it, and we'll just keep battling."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor for NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.