The Inside Line by Tim Stephens


Blame it on ESPN. When the all-sports network was celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, it did so with a series of top-25 lists. The success of those shows has begotten copycat after copycat.

Just call me a Xerox that meows.

With 10 years in the books, now's as good a time as any to punch out the top-10 list of best drivers in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series history.

First, some ground rules:

1.) This is subjective, so feel free to argue, disagree, etc.
2.) For this list, we tried to only consider the body of work done by the driver while they were in the NCTS.
3.) We also tried to eliminate any personal interactions or friendships from the mix, but understand that we are human and those things are never bleached completely from our minds.

So, finally, here comes the list:

No. 10 - Brendan Gaughan
This guy may be the best piped-piper personality to hit NASCAR racing since Darrell Waltrip in the 1970's. The son of a Las Vegas casino owner and former college athlete, Gaughan appeared anything but serious about racing when he hit the truck circuit for the first time in 1997. After making 17 starts in various part-time rides, Gaughan finally made the truck series his home in 2002. Some eight wins later, he's become one of the circuit's all-times best shoes and its runaway choice as the No. 1 personality to sit behind the wheel.

No. 9 - Bobby Hamilton
The veteran Hamilton made his truck series debut back in 1996. He became a full-time team owner in 1999 and finally jumped in the circuit as a full-time driver in 2003. In the last two seasons, Hamilton has six wins and a championship. Overall, he has eight wins in 74 starts and is one of the rare drivers to have started at least one CTS event in each of the last nine seasons.

No. 8 - Dennis Setzer
No pilot in NCTS history has been as consistent as long as Dennis Setzer. Setzer's 12 wins includes at least a single tally in each of seven consecutive seasons. His second-place finish in the 2004 point standings was his sixth-straight year in the top-10. He's been runner-up two years in a row.

No. 7 - Joe Ruttman
While many other veterans have returned to the truck circuit in recent seasons, Joe Ruttman was the pioneer Cup veteran racing in the NCTS. Ruttman gave Ford its first win in the series (Bristol, 1995). He claimed 13 victories overall and proved himself capable of winning at an advanced age. Ruttman's 68 top-five finishes is second all-time.

No. 6 - Mike Skinner
Statistically speaking, Mike Skinner was the man in the initial two seasons of the NCTS. After winning eight times in each of the circuit's first two seasons, Skinner left the trucks after 1996 and headed to the Cup series. He returned full-time in 2004 as one of the top Toyota drivers. Had he spent longer in the series, or perhaps had better fortune in his 2004 return tour, Skinner easily could have cracked the all-time top-five as his 16 career victories has him tied for third all-time.

No. 5 - Mike Bliss
Like many others on this list, Bliss has made two runs through the NCTS. Bliss' initial reign as the driver of Ultra's No. 2 truck saw him garner seven victories in five seasons. The untold story was how many other wins Bliss let slip away. Time and time again, Bliss failed to hold the lead. After an aborted run in Cup, Bliss came back with the reborn Xpress Motorsports, and his luck changed. Bliss won five times, closed virtually every chance at victory and claimed the 2002 CTS championship. The successful second-time-around vaulted him from the back half of the top-10 to fifth overall.

No. 4 - Jack Sprague
One of the early privateers in the NCTS, Sprague's rise from independent to one of the statistically most-successful team in series history (Hendrick Motorsports) is impressive. He's second on the circuit's all-time winners list with 24 victories and has 108 top-five finishes (40 more than second place). He's the only man walking the planet with three NCTS driver titles. A case could be made for him to be in any one of the top four positions. The top of the list is that close.

No. 3 - Ted Musgrave
Fifteen wins in four seasons are enough to make an argument for Musgrave as one of the NCTS' all-time greats. But his biggest impact on the circuit has nothing to do with on-track performance. Musgrave abandoned the middle of the Cup pack and made a statement by joining the truck series on a full-time basis in 2001 at a time when many in Cup-land were writing the CTS' obituary. Musgrave's on-track success and his open embrace of the truck series make him truly a pioneer. It's hard to imagine many of the other Cup veterans that have made the circuit home in recent years joining the loop had Musgrave not blazed the trail.

No. 2 - Ron Hornaday
By the time you get to the top two, the hairs are getting split mighty thin. Driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., Ron Hornaday cast a long shadow across the NCTS. His 26 wins and two championships are easy to document. His other impacts are more subtle. Hornaday's aggressive on-track style set the rough-and-tumble tone for the NCTS, a tenor that remains to this day. His success as a veteran of the short tracks in the southwest helped open up a pipeline of talent that continues to begat drivers.

No. 1 - Greg Biffle
The in-your-face tone that Ron Hornaday established in the NCTS was perfected by Greg Biffle. Fast from day one, Biffle went from Rookie of the Year to race winner to Champion to gone in four seasons. He owns 16 career victories, tied with Mike Skinner for third all-time, and one championship. His ability to win on all types of tracks, in every condition and with adversity of every kind, made him a great fit for the NCTS. The battle at the top is close and the call is subjective, but if you were asked to pick one guy to take your truck and carry it to the front, Biffle would be this man's pick above all others.

Honorable Mention
The problem with any list is there are always those that almost made it. Can't let this end without mentioning a few others that were part of the conversation. They are as as follows (in alphabetical order): Rich Bickle, Kurt Busch, Rick Carelli, Terry Cook, Carl Edwards, Kenny Irwin, Travis Kvapil, Tony Raines, Jay Sauter, Scott Riggs and Mike Wallace.

- Tim Stephens, The Inside Line
Special to TruckSeries.com

You may contact Tim Stephens directly at tim.stephens@truckseries.com




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