DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (January 12, 2000) - The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is revved up and ready to roll into the new millennium, the new century, the 2000 season.
NASCAR's hard-charging series has a new super track to romp on, lots of old faces and some new at the steering wheels and a fresh big time Craftsman team owner who's no stranger to winning races.
That's the story as the truck series pros speed confidently into the 21st Century, starting with an inaugural run at Daytona International Speedway during the high-profile Speed Weeks.
The truckers enter the sixth year of their meteoric rise from an experiment to one of the great success stories in American sports even more new and improved.
Some of last year's performers have moved on, but pole to last row, the field has ramped up.
Defending and two-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champ Jack Sprague is back wheeling a tougher than ever GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet Silverado out the amazing stable of Rick Hendrick-owned racing machines.
Sprague's nemesis Ron Hornaday has moved on to drive for seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt in the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division. Mike Bliss was tapped from Jack Roush's Exide Batteries Ford F-150 truck to drive for four-time Indy 500 and former Daytona 500 winner A.J. Foyt in Foyt's new NASCAR Winston Cup Series Pontiacs.
But the old made way for the new. Twenty-one-year-old NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series stock car star Kurt Busch of Las Vegas leads the year 2000 NCTS rookie class. He'll drive the No. 99 Exide Ford, in which Bliss, Joe Ruttman and Mark Martin won a combined eight times.
Maybe he'll be a young phenom, in the mold of Roush's 1998 NCTS rookie-of-the-year Greg Biffle. But Busch will have to earn his spurs in spades driving in a series where every spot on the grid is hotly contested.
"I'm not expecting to come in here and have a piece of cake," Busch said. "First of all Phoenix, Bakersfield and California are the only tracks the trucks go to I've raced on. But we have some pretty lofty goals. We're shooting for rookie of the year. But I know I'm going to have to work hard to get top fives."Roush and company didn't just take a flyer on Busch.
"When Mike Bliss gave his notice in September they asked for resumes and received at least 50," Busch said. "The list was very impressive. They gave five guys tryouts. I was lucky and was able to go to both at Toledo and Phoenix."
Busch is looking forward to Daytona and the Feb. 18 season opener. "What a dream my first season," he said. "I visited the track when I was 10 and I could not believe anybody could race on those turns, which are walls. Now I'm going there.""The High Plains Drifter" is another driver champing at the bit to get the season going with a new team, and psyched for the start at Daytona.
Series pioneer Rick Carelli, "The Drifter." comes back from an accident last May at Memphis that ended his season and nearly ended his career -- and worse.
Carelli, one of four drivers to race in every one of the first 100 NCTS events and winner of the first "exhibition race" in 1994 at Tucson Raceway Park, drives a Ford F-150 for the first time in his career, for Phelon Racing.
"It's pretty incredible how far this series has come," said Carelli whose third and most recent NCTS victory came last April at Bakersfield, Calif. "I never honestly thought we'd be on superspeedways, much less Daytona. We started on short tracks, on quarter miles, three-eighths miles and now in 2000 we'll be on two-and-half-mile superspeedways and half-miles are our short tracks. It's great."Carelli sees 2000 as much of a challenge as it would be had two-time truck champion, Hornaday, had not moved on to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Nothing's different. You race the race track, not the other guys, whether they're new guys or old," said Carelli, who won the race at Bakersfield and was in point contention at that time. "You have to look at it unloading at every track and trying to play the cards that are dealt you. You have to race every race hard or get left behind."Rick Crawford stays put in Tom Mitchell's Ford F-150. But the team has a new solid sponsor in Milwaukee Electric Tool. That helps Mitchell, who previously bankrolled the operation himself with his Circle Bar Hotel and RV Park, a five-star resort in Ozona, Texas.
Crawford came on strong the last 10 races of 1999 after crew chief Mike Cheek climbed on board.
"Getting a national sponsor finishes our package," said Crawford. "Our whole deal is coming together. I was the top Ford at the first test at Daytona, so we want to come out of the box well. We had the momentum at the end of last year. We're pressuring ourselves to have a break through year."Midwest home improvement chain store magnate John Menard, who for years fielded Indianapolis-style cars in both the CART and IRL series, bought out the Richard Childress Racing team and drafted veteran Bryan Reffner as his teamster.
"This is my big chance. John Menard knows how to win championships," former ASA short track champion Reffner said. "The best thing is he's letting me control my own destiny. I was involved in picking my own crew. I'm really excited about the tracks we're going to in 2000 and my new chance."
Menard, who fielded IRL cars for the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series sensation and two-time IRL champion, Tony Stewart, makes a bold move to get to the front of the pack quickly. Team Menard will get engines for its Johns-Manville Chevrolet Silverados from Wegner Automotive in Wisconsin. "We want to be the number one customer," Reffner said.And No. 1 is what every NCTS team is shooting for as opening day 2000 and the chance to race on the storied Daytona International Speedway fast approaches.
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