By Gary Graves, USA TODAY
Bobby Hamilton didn't start the trend, but he might have exacerbated it by winning the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series title last year.
As a result Hamilton will have to defend his title against the usual challengers as well as an influx of former Nextel Cup drivers, who view his success as proof that competitive balance exists in NASCAR. Ricky Craven, Johnny Benson and Jimmy Spencer have bumped the total of former Cup full-timers up to a dozen, with Mark Martin and Ken Schrader coming in over the next couple of years.
So what began 10 years ago as a neat little developmental series has evolved into what one truck series driver jokingly says is NASCAR's senior tour. "Cup Lite" might be a more fitting title, given how their presence tightens the competition.
"We all live and die by our expectations, and the most difficult part of being a competitor is losing," says Craven, a two-time Cup winner who moves into Roush Racing's No. 99 Ford.
"The opinion of most Cup drivers is that they'd rather race competitively in the truck series or Busch than race at a disadvantage in Cup. A lot of circumstances figured in my decision, such as my wife being eight months' pregnant, and a 25-race schedule with a chance to race at (Lowe's Motor Speedway) was appealing. I think this will suit me well."
Especially because Craven's 10 years of Cup experience make him part of a large group of contenders ready to knock off Hamilton. Benson came on at midseason last year for Bill Davis Racing and posted eight top-10s in 13 starts, and Spencer won at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2003 in just his second truck series start.
Brendan Gaughan returns after a Cup of coffee with Penske South and two seasons after entering the truck series' season finale with the points lead before finishing fourth. The eight-time winner has no regrets and can't wait to see how his Cup experience translates to trucks.
"I bring a lot more patience and savvy, and I'll need all that to compete with them," he says. "It'll never be Cup-like, because these guys have their own styles. But the drivers bring all that savvy, and that will make it more exciting."
The obstacle is pushing aside the usual challengers. Just 70 points separated Hamilton from third-place Ted Musgrave, with runner-up Dennis Setzer 48 points back. Carl Edwards and Travis Kvapil ascended to Cup, but ex-Cup drivers Jack Sprague (a three-time truck champion), Steve Park and Mike Skinner return, and old hand Rick Crawford is in the mix.
Hamilton's nonchalance through all this is more about focus than cockiness. Though mindful of the task ahead, handling his business is all he's thinking about, a strategy that served him well with four Cup wins. Last year proved what could happen with that approach, and nothing should change no matter how many of his buddies are around.
"We won't go into this thinking of winning championships; we just want to win races," says Hamilton, who won four times. "To be honest, I really don't pay attention to all that stuff. But with all those guys coming around, it's a little more fun for me because it gives me more people to talk to."