Truck Series features good mix of youth and veterans

Second generation drivers using lessons learned from successful dads to earn respect

Matt Crafton celebrates after winning the Coca-Cola 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway in 2011. Crafton is one of the veterans of the series these days. (Gazette file photo)
Matt Crafton celebrates after winning the Coca-Cola 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway in 2011. Crafton is one of the veterans of the series these days. (Gazette file photo)

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has always been considered a developmental series — the Class AA of NASCAR, as it were.

It’s the first step in national touring series for NASCAR, and many of today’s Sprint Cup stars cut their teeth.

So it’s all young guys, right? Not so fast.

“This weekend at Iowa (Speedway), we have 16 rookie drivers out of the 36-(truck) field. So almost half the field qualify as rookie drivers,” said Camping World Truck Series managing director Chad Little. “But on the flip side, we have guys like Matt Crafton and Ron Hornaday who are series champions and continue to set the stage for what the rookies need to achieve and how they need to carry themselves.”

The Truck Series arrives for its only stop at Iowa Speedway this season for the American Ethanol 200, and features a dichotomy of sorts in how the field is made up.

The veterans who have stuck with the Truck Series over the years — either by choice or not — represent years of racing success. The three leading veterans, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter, represent 65 wins and five championships over 814 starts, collectively in 43 years of experience.

Crafton, the 2013 series champion, has taken the transition from upstart rookie to seasoned veteran and is now in his 14th full-time season in the Truck Series. He said it’s kind of surreal to go from one end of the spectrum to the other.

“It’s cool, but it seems like yesterday I came into the Truck Series,” Crafton said. “It’s amazing to say I’ve been here this long. At the end of the day it’s about Duke and Rhonda Thorson, and a sponsor in Menards believing in me to have it last this long.”

Of the young group of racers, a handful aren’t exactly new to the sport.

There’s a generation of racers coming along who grew up as sons of NASCAR drivers, and are making their own way in the sport now. Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series and Ryan Blaney, Jeb Burton and John Hunter Nemechek in the Truck Series are faces fans saw during prerace festivities on TV on pit road with their dads Bill, Dave, Ward and Joe.

Now they’re all racing together, all of them showing almost instant speed and a few of them winning right away. These drivers have their dads and their teammates — Blaney with Brad Keselowski, Burton with Crafton and Sauter in the Truck Series — to lean on for advice.

Each is doing their best to earn respect as they try to reach their goals.

“You race against (veterans) hard and clean, you don’t want to wreck them,” said John Hunter Nemechek, who splits time in his Truck with his dad, Joe. “I think we’ve gained some respect this year. We’ve ran very hard races, but clean races.

“I think running well, running up front and showing you’re capable of winning or racing hard without wrecking is only going to earn respect.”

John Hunter learned those ideals from a dad in Joe who’s seen all kinds of fresh faces over the years in the Nationwide and Cup Series.

Joe has seen the good and bad in those young guys, and has made sure his son will be one of the good ones.

“One of the biggest things is young drivers coming in and not trying to earn that respect, and if there’s an opportunity, they’d dump you. And those drivers will end up paying the price for that down the road,” Joe said. “Trying to come in, earn your place (is the way to go). You’ve got to race hard, but you’ve got to race smart. And if you’re not going to race smart, that means you’re going to end up wrecked.

“That’s probably the difference between some of the drivers’ sons, who have been around this their whole lives, and some of the other (young) drivers. I’m sure there’s a lot of coaching from the dads, trying to make sure they don’t make those mistakes.”

NASCAR likes what it has in the Truck Series driver lineup, and can see the growth moving up the ladder.

After all, that’s why the lower series are there — to teach and grow the next stars of the sport.

“It really makes for a good mix,” Little said. “It’s a good format for the rookie drivers to learn from, and the veteran drivers have found a home here. It works out well.”

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