Tough Truckin’: State of Truck Series on Full Display at Gateway

There’s a new normal in the Camping World Truck Series.

Saturday night’s Drivin’ for Linemen 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park served as a perfect showcase for NASCAR’s third-ring national series. Away from both the XFINITY and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the stars of the Truck Series were the star attraction, as John Hunter Nemechek drove past Matt Crafton in the final laps to score his first win of the season and the fourth of his career. It was an emotional Father’s Day triumph for a racing family. It put Nemechek’s independent team, owned by his father and longtime competitor Joe, into the Truck Series playoffs for the second time in as many years.

If they can last until then, that is. The Nemecheks revealed in Victory Lane that despite making the playoffs, John Hunter is not guaranteed to finish the season without a paying sponsor.

“It’s taken everything that I have to get here,” said Joe. “Our future in this deal is not certain. Hopefully this can spark some interest in sponsorship.”

It would be one thing if the Nemecheks were on their own in scraping by to get to the racetrack from week to week. But in the past month, the issues surrounding one of NASCAR’s most popular touring series have been exacerbated by teams either scaling back their involvement or shutting down entirely. The series suffered a major blow after its race in Charlotte when Red Horse Racing, a championship-caliber team, suddenly closed its doors after owner Tom DeLoach found himself no longer willing to fund the team solely with his own money. As a result, two full-time entries driven by Timothy Peters and Brett Moffitt went away.

The closure of Red Horse Racing, coupled with the moves of GMS Racing’s No. 23 team and Martins Motorsports to the XFINITY Series, left the field in a badly depleted state. In a far cry from the 36 Truck fields the series attracted less than a decade ago, only 28 trucks made the trip west to Texas Motor Speedway. When both Halmar Friesen Racing and MDM Motorsports were forced to withdraw from the field at Gateway, the initial entry list for Saturday night’s race only had 25 entrants. The field was hastily filled by five additional trucks, but the more respectable 30 Truck field was not a display of strength. Many of the late entrants were start-and-park Trucks, and others proved to be woefully off the pace.

NASCAR has not publicly sounded the alarm for the Truck Series, and little has been done since team owners Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski lamented the cost of team ownership in the series two years ago.

The truck series runs into a perennial conversation of cost as it pertains to a balancing act between professionalism, competition and how much money we’re willing to lose,” said Keselowski in late 2015. “Until all three of those get aligned, the truck series, or any other series, is not going to be in a position to be in its strongest form.”

A popular suggestion has been the implementation of a spec motor similar to the Ilmor 396 engine used in the ARCA Racing Series, but such a program has not come to fruition. Busch explained that this is largely because of the interests of the manufacturers.

“The spec motor thing is frustrating for them because they want to support the series with their engines and not with a spec engine,” said Busch. “I mean, if it’s a spec engine with a Chevrolet block and something else on the head, Toyota doesn’t want to see that underneath the hood of their vehicles, right?”

On his radio show, former championship-winning Truck owner Kevin Harvick blasted the current schedule of the series, advocating for less Cup-companion races and more stand-alone races at the smaller, regional speedways that dominated the schedule in the series’ early years.

“In order to help our sport to produce from the bottom up, we have to help figure out how to get the grassroots program where they need to be and that’s what we need to be using the Truck Series for,” Harvick said in late May. “Go to these grassroots race tracks and guess what? That’s where the Trucks need to be racing because they’re going to put 10 to 15,000 people in the grandstands every week to watch these races because they’re unique events.”

“[Race fans]  don’t want to show up on a Friday at Dover and watch these trucks drive around the race track because they’re going to show up on Sunday to watch the Cup cars. Take the trucks somewhere where everybody wants to see them, because there’s short tracks across the country that want to see them.”

The Truck Series is a microcosm of larger issues surrounding NASCAR racing when it comes to car count – The Cup Series saw its smallest field since 1996 on Sunday, and a pitiful 15 cars competed in the K&N Pro Series East’s most recent race at Memphis. Though it still proves to be a popular draw, prompt action should be taken by NASCAR to address the Truck Series’ strength of competition and economic viability, especially if it wishes to have the series remain a proving ground for its future stars.