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Truck Year in Review: Age of experience

December 19, 2011, Dave Rodman,

The 2011 season was a battle between generations, this time won by the young

The 2011 Camping World Truck Series season featured the typical mix of gnarly veterans locking it up with some of the best young talent NASCAR has to offer -- but in the end, this season had the delightful and largely unusual twist of the kids coming out on top.

Richard Childress Racing, which won the inaugural Truck Series championship in 1995 with veteran Mike Skinner, was the ultimate highlight in 2011.

RCR's pair of 21-year-olds, series champion Austin Dillon and rookie of the year Joey Coulter, were in the headlines all season long -- for everything from winning races to not being afraid to trade paint with the veterans to Dillon's ground-scrubbing antics at Nashville and Homestead.


Austin Dillon felt honored as he was crowned the 2011 Truck Series champion.

While Dillon becoming the youngest champion in the series' 17-year history was certainly a huge high point, the season started with a splash. In the 10th anniversary Speedweeks following Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, his winning driver that day, Michael Waltrip, won the Truck Series' opener with a spectacular last-lap pass.

Waltrip, one of 12 different winners this Truck Series season, became the 22nd driver to win a race in all three of NASCAR's national tours. And while Waltrip was one of seven non-series regulars to win a race -- led by owner/driver Kyle Busch, who had six -- the five regulars who reached Victory Lane this season were packed in the top eight in the standings.

But leave it to a small, lightly-funded independent team, RBR Enterprises, and its driver, Clay Rogers, to epitomize what the Truck Series can be all about. Spurred by Rogers' career-best third-place finish at Daytona, RBR stayed in the series' top 10 for the first eight races -- proving where there's a will, and some ability, there's a way.

Rogers ultimately ran 15 of 25 races and finished 20th in the championship, while owner Ricky Benton ended up 25th in the owners' standings.

Cup drivers Busch and Kasey Kahne, who are both members of that triple-winners' club, scored the series' next wins, at Phoenix and Darlington, but at the same time ThorSport Racing was showing why it was the best multi-truck regular team in the series.

Matt Crafton led the standings early in the season -- or until his teammate, former Truck Series rookie of the year Johnny Sauter, won at Martinsville to take over the points lead. Sauter would dominate, holding either first or second in the championship points for the next 14 weeks.

Sauter's win was certainly a highlight for him, coming at one of his favorite short tracks, but also for the series, as he nudged the often-dominant Busch out of the way on the next-to-last lap to seal the deal.

That only angered the proverbial sleeping giant, as Busch ripped off consecutive victories at Nashville, Dover and Charlotte before Clint Bowyer won his home-state race at Kansas. Through that stretch Cole Whitt, one of a group of probably the series' best rookie classes ever, led the points for a week.

Through the early summer the series' past and present displayed itself to great effect as Ron Hornaday kicked-off a scintillating, though star-crossed, late run at his fifth series championship by winning at Texas. Busch followed that up at Kentucky, but then series regulars Crafton (who beat Dillon at Iowa) Dillon (who beat Sauter at Nashville -- where Dillon "splattered" himself into a painted logo on the frontstretch grass) and Timothy Peters (who beat a charging James Buescher at Lucas Oil Raceway) took the headlines.

At this point Buescher was creeping inexorably forward, trying to make a championship run for future father-in-law, Turner Motorsports' owner Steve Turner. Buescher missed the season's second race, at Phoenix, but rebounded well enough to lead the series for two weeks in the fall, before Dillon began his final march to the title.

The 2011 Truck Series season was one for streaks, and owner/driver Kevin Harvick exhibited that in the late summer as he won three consecutive -- at Pocono, Michigan and Bristol -- on his way to locking up the Trucks' owners' championship for his No. 2 Chevrolet team in Kevin Harvick Incorporated's final season of competition.

That was a perfect segue to an amazing run by Hornaday, who in the first half of the season started with three finishes outside the top 25 and was written off by many as not having a championship shot. But starting at Atlanta, Hornaday won three of five races, including stops at Kentucky and Las Vegas. Those were sandwiched around the win Dillon called his "most significant," at Chicagoland, and another score for Busch, at New Hampshire.

Kyle Busch wrecks Ron Hornaday under caution at Texas. (Getty)

Trials and tribulations

After Kyle Busch's on-track actions during the Truck Series race at Texas, Busch, his team and his sponsors continued to deal with the ramifications.

Hornaday captured his milestone 50th victory at Kentucky, but even more impressive was that he won in two different KHI trucks, the No. 2 and the No. 33, and won with a pair of different crew chiefs, Bruce Cook and Jeff Hensley. Hornaday also became just the fourth driver in series' history to compete in at least 300 races.

Dillon's Chicagoland score, rather than a potentially more significant win, was strongly cited by the youngster as being his championship key because he beat Busch and Harvick to grab it. Harvick dominated the 150-lap event, leading a race-high 99 laps, but a vibration forced a four-tire stop late in the race resulting in a second-place finish. The victory moved Dillon within three points of the championship lead with seven races remaining in the 2011 season.

Dillon, the ultimate "young gun" even if he did have the advantage of racing in strongly-supported Richard Childress Racing trucks fielded by his grandfather, Childress, took the championship lead he'd never surrender when he finished second to Hornaday at Kentucky.

As Dillon followed a consistent path to his first NASCAR championship, the action around him was spectacular. Popular superspeedway ace Mike Wallace stepped into the KHI truck usually driven by Hornaday, and in what was probably the season's ultimate unselfish act by a championship contender, was pushed to the win at Talladega by Hornaday, who finished second in the No. 2 truck.

Denny Hamlin finally scored a much coveted Truck Series win -- at his home-state Martinsville Speedway no less -- and in the process became the 23rd driver to win in all three of NASCAR's national tours. He did it driving for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch, in a deal that was arranged well before Busch was in the midst of both a Truck Series owners' title race as well as a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship tussle.

Probably the highlight of the season -- certainly on a dubious level -- came at Texas where Busch and Hornaday, after a spate of hard racing, got tied up. Busch deliberately turned Hornaday into the fence under caution; and was immediately parked. That eliminated Hornaday from any championship shot, delivered the win and owners' title to Harvick and resulted in Busch being parked for the two races remaining in the weekend.

Needless to say, that created consequences that reached far beyond the Truck Series.

That left Sauter to do everything he could, namely lead the most laps and win the Homestead Ford 200 finale; only to come up six points behind Dillon -- who celebrated his title by "planking" on Homestead's pit road pavement while rain poured down.

Behind Sauter, Buescher, Hornaday and Peters forecast great things to come in the series' future.

Mindful of that call, the unsung hero and most surprising competitor of the season had to be Nelson Piquet Jr. The Brazilian native finished second at Nashville in only his 10th series start, scored six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes -- including two fourth-place finishes in the final two races of the season -- and finished 10th in the championship.

* 2011: By the Numbers | Top performances

Notes-n-Nuggets | Year in Review

Crazy races
• Daytona -- Michael Waltrip won on the 10-year anniversary of his first Daytona 500 win, the day Dale Earnhardt was killed. Waltrip drove No. 15 in honor of that win.
• Charlotte -- James Buescher (battery) and Ron Hornaday (spins) both have issues, but recover to finish fourth and fifth.
• Kansas -- Clint Bowyer wins at his home track in the series' 400th race. Kyle Busch and Richard Childress have an "altercation" following the race; Childress was fined $150,000.
• Texas -- Johnny Sauter is penalized for jumping the restart while leading on the green-white-checkered finish, penalized to finish 22nd.
• Nashville -- Austin Dillon takes two tires for track position, then does a face plant in the infield logos while celebrating.
• Michigan -- Multiple contenders have problems: Kyle Busch (engine), Mark Martin, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Matt Crafton all wreck battling for the lead.
• Atlanta -- Ron Hornaday goes the final 56 laps on one tank of gas and backed his pace down more than two seconds a lap to grab the win.
• Mike Wallace and Ron Hornaday hooked up the entire race, leading at will. The unlikely pairing of Busch and Dillon is broken up when Dillon is penalized for not maintaining caution pace.
• Texas -- Kyle Busch intentionally wrecks Ron Hornaday on Lap 13 after battling for second; Busch is parked for the rest of the weekend. Hornaday was only 15 points behind the leader and had finished first or second in the previous four races.
Significant penalties
• Ron Hornaday was found with an unapproved rear end gear ration in post race inspection at Charlotte; fined 25 points.
• Johnny Sauter crashed during qualifying at Pocono and went to a back-up truck. He was too high in post-race inspection and fined six points.

Photo gallery -- Take a look back at the 2011 Truck Series season below: