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'Lady in Black' might be ready to welcome back truck events

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning heads into town, one question from fans comes up more than most: "When are the trucks coming back?"

Maybe it won't be too long.

Five NASCAR Craftsman Truck teams began a two-day test Tuesday at newly repaved Darlington Raceway, according to track officials, even though the series hasn't raced there since 2004 and is not on the schedule this season.

Could the test mean trucks are returning to "The Lady In Black?"

"I sure hope so," said Johnny Benson, whose Bill Davis No. 23 Toyota Tundra took part in the test Tuesday.

Darlington, with its tire-chewing surface and misshapen corners, is not typically the place NASCAR teams in any circuit would plan to practice. But Benson said the new, smooth surface should give truck teams some good information to use at future races, such as the O'Reilly Auto Parts 250 in Kansas City on April 26.

"If this were the way it usually is, we wouldn't be here," Benson said.

Darlington held truck events from 2001 to 2004. The last one, won by Kasey Kahne, was the track's first race to finish at night after lights were added to the facility.

Browning, who became president in the middle of 2004, said a scheduling conflict with Darlington's Mother's Day weekend slot prevented the trucks from coming back. Plus, Darlington had its hands full simply maintaining its place on the Sprint Cup schedule.

The track has undergone a series of improvements since then, including the addition of 6,300 seats in the new Brasington Tower in Turn 1. When Sprint Cup drivers show up next month for the Dodge Challenger 500, they'll also see a new infield access tunnel along with track's first repaving since 1995.

The projects were part of a $10 million capital construction plan for the track, which first hosted a NASCAR race in 1950.

A Goodyear tire test in March including Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman featured straightaway speeds topping 200 mph, Browning said.

In Benson's first few laps Tuesday, he said he reached 170.750 mph.

Also participating Tuesday were Benson's Bill Davis teammates, Mike Skinner and Phillip McGilton, and the Roush Fenway Racing teams of Joey Clanton and Erik Darnell.

In Browning's mind, a perfect Darlington weekend would include a U.S. Auto Club Silver Crown series event Thursday night, the NASCAR trucks on Friday night and the Sprint Cup cars Saturday night "because of the diversity of the vehicles," he said.

The USAC series opened things at Darlington last spring with Aaron Pierce taking the checkered flag. The series was scheduled again this May, but canceled when the USAC returned to its more traditional cars designed for layouts shorter than Darlington's 1.366-mile distance.

Browning says the tests Tuesday could push Darlington's case that the trucks would make a good show in 2009. He hopes to sit down with NASCAR leaders to plot it out.

The trucks debuted in Darlington in 2001 with the late Bobby Hamilton winning the rain-shortened race. Benson remembers those past races at Darlington, and how challenging it can be.

"It's always a great race because this is such a unique place," Benson said.