Truck racing brings out best of West

Southern-based racing fans won't like this, but their once-fertile soil did not produce today's most talented NASCAR drivers.

Of the 12 drivers in the Nextel Cup's Chase for the Championship, only two have Southern roots: Virginians Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin.

Nearly half of the field is from Las Vegas and California.

Nevada has Kurt and Kyle Busch.

California has native sons Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

The West truly has risen.

The Midwest claims Tony Stewart (Indiana), Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin), Carl Edwards (Missouri) and Clint Bowyer (Kansas).

And Martin Truex Jr. is from New Jersey.

Who could have imagined 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, that no drivers would be representing the Carolinas, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee or Florida?

For its first four decades, NASCAR was pretty much Southern property. Stock cars were for good old boys, while top wheelmen from the rest of the country yearned to drive Indy cars.

Now the Champ Car World Series and Indy Racing Leagues are becoming minor league developmental series for NASCAR's pro divisions.

When the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series begins practice Saturday for that night's Smith's Las Vegas 350 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, one-third of the 36-truck field will be from the West.

It also will mark the first time two Indianapolis 500 winners have started a truck race.

Canadian Jacques Villeneuve won the Memorial Day Weekend classic in 1995, when it was a true classic. Buddy Lazier of Colorado won Indy the following year when the field was diluted after Indy Racing League split open-wheel racing into two camps.

The truck series, however, is a big reason for the number of Western drivers succeeding in NASCAR.

It was created by Californians in 1994; the first official race was held in 1995 in Phoenix. Back then it was called Super Trucks.

Mike Skinner of Susanville, Calif., won the first series championship. Ron Hornaday of Palmdale, Calif., won two of the next three.

That opened the NASCAR door for drivers such as Kurt Busch, the top truck rookie in 2000 when he won four times and finished runner-up for the series championship to Washington native Greg Biffle.

Hornaday says the key to Westerners getting noticed by NASCAR teams based around the sport's longtime hub of Charlotte, N.C., was the national television coverage the trucks have received since Day One.

"The TV coverage showed there were talented drivers out West on the short tracks. That opened some eyes," he said.

Skinner pointed out another reason the series was respected: "In the early years of the truck series, Cup guys would come to race with us -- and get beat."

Dale Earnhardt Sr. and wife Teresa contacted Hornaday when they wanted to start a truck team.

"If it wasn't for that call, I wouldn't have ever got a chance. I'd probably still be building race cars and racing in local Saturday night shows," Hornaday said.

Heading into Saturday night's race, Hornaday is the series points leader, with Skinner 29 points behind and seven races remaining.

Hornaday considers the truck series the most exciting form of racing that NASCAR offers. He's right, largely because races are about half as long as those in Cup and fields are loaded with experience and talent.

Saturday's race is 219 miles. The annual Las Vegas Cup race is 400 miles, and the Busch race is 300 miles.

"When the green flag drops for a truck race it's like every lap is the last lap," Hornaday says. "These guys race hard every lap."

The truck series, once a proving ground for young drivers, now features veterans of the Cup and Busch series.

Of the top five truck drivers, 31-year-old Travis Kvapil is the only one younger than 43, with Skinner topping the group at 50. Sixth in points is Rick Crawford, 49, followed by Ted Musgrave, 51.

Twentysomethings will account for only one-third of Saturday's 36-car starting field, which includes 19-year-old Brian Scott of Boise, Idaho.

But it will be the graybeards doing the schooling with Hornaday and Skinner leading 10 Westerners to the starting line.

And none of the top five in series points speaks with a Southern drawl.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or