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Thursday, October 3
Many drivers on the move
By Ray Dunlap
There are some big changes ahead for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series next year.
When examining the drivers, rules, schedule and TV network, much is about to change for the 2003 season.
ESPN will not be the exclusive home for the Trucks next season. The 2001 and '02 seasons were covered completely by the ESPN networks, and ESPN has been a part of the circuit since its inception in 1995, broadcasting from Tucson, Ariz., in April of that year. The network will have covered 150 of the series 192 events at the conclusion of this season in Homestead, Fla.
Speed Channel will be the new home for Truck racing fans. While it is true that ESPN2 reaches nearly 30 million more homes than Speed, NASCAR is banking on the fact that cross-promotion with Winston Cup and Busch events will increase viewership. Having all the races shown live will be a benefit, but honestly, the biggest problem with this series is an inconsistent schedule.
People do not know when the events are on TV. The September schedule had the trucks at Richmond, Va., on Thursday night, the next week was Texas on Friday evening (but on tape delay), then the following week was South Boston, Va., on Saturday afternoon against college football. My neighbor asked if he could borrow my tapes of those races because he missed all three.
The 2003 schedule is not completed yet because the network is changing. There have been many logistics to consider when scheduling the third tier on the NASCAR pecking order. There will be more races run in conjunction with Winston Cup events. I am still undecided if that is a good thing or not. It costs the teams a lot more money to run those weekends, due to hotel price gouging.
For sure, there will be two races run at Martinsville, Va., no event at Pikes Peak, Colo., a new venue at Charlotte, and a return to Bakersfield, Calif., on March 23. The series will run at Gateway near St. Louis, but on a new date, July 19. The Trucks and Busch Series swap dates at that venue. A return to Bristol, Tenn., will be a great addition, if completed. The New Hampshire event will change from July to September.
It appears that the only real variable is Chicagoland Speedway. I would much rather see the series run at Irwindale, Calif., Hickory, N.C., or Lakeland, Fla., than another 1½-mile tri-oval. But keep in mind, Sears' headquarters is located in Chicago.
The driver roster may be a bit different next year, too. It's highly unlikely that the Petty's No. 43 Dodge will return. Kyle Petty told me the Truck program does not help his organization improve the Winston Cup cars. Current driver Carlos Contreras hopes to compete in the Busch Series with the Hispanic Racing Team.
Coy Gibbs will not return as he tries to transition to the Busch ranks. It's possible that Joe Gibbs Racing will field three Busch teams in '03. Addington Racing's No. 60 team is in a last-minute scramble for sponsorship, leaving Travis Kvapil wondering how long he can wait out the search.
Dodge will pull its "Run with the Ram" program, which supports non-factory teams. This will leave a number of lower-tier teams undecided about the future. Brendan Gaughan will return for a run at the championship. His sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, has not yet signed for '03, but his second big win in Texas sure has to help convince them that a title is possible next year.
Ultra Motorsports has changed plans about every day for the last month, but the big picture for 2003 has both Ted Musgrave and Jason Leffler back in the Nos. 1 and 2 trucks. With a couple of new Busch cars on order, look for Leffler to cherry pick that series, while Musgrave continues to chase his first Winston Cup victory with a four- or five-race schedule similar to this year's -- Brickyard, Darlington, S.C., Phoenix and Homestead, Fla.
There are handful of possible drivers for Bobby Hamilton's No. 4 team. Ryan Hemphill will take the wheel for a few races to close out this season. Carl Edwards, Justin Labonte and other up-and-coming young talent are being considered. Don't rule out Hamilton himself as a full time competitor. So far it appears he has no firm deal for Winston Cup.
Kyle Busch will return to Roush Racing's No. 99 ride immediately after his 18th birthday on May 2. This will have him missing the first four races of 2003. Mark Martin will substitute for the kid in the season's first few shows. If Martin wins the title this year, he will be the first Winston Cup champ to race a Truck since Terry Labonte won at Richmond in 1995.
I have been asking for weeks if Terry Cook will be back in the No. 29 Ford for K Automotive. No answer yet. The rumors all season have had the No. 16 Chevy team closing down after the season, but I have a feeling that both Mike Bliss and Cook will return. After all, one of them could be the champion and the other will want to come back to prove that he should have been.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories