Every season since 2004, the over-40 crowd has hogged the championship spotlight in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
But in 2011, Austin Dillon changed all of that. At 21 years, six months and 22 days, Dillon became the youngest champion in the 17-year history of the series, signaling a possible changing of the guard.
Dillon was not alone in the young gun discussion, with the likes of Johnny Sauter, James Buescher and Timothy Peters all making a charge at the championship title. Throw in the addition of one of the strongest rookie classes in series history, and the series’ future looks strong.
There certainly were some outstanding performances that took place during the recently completed 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck season. The following is a look back at some of those standout performers and memorable races, as selected from discussions with the national series directors, competition department and NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications managers.
Austin Dillon – No sophomore slump for Austin Dillon, who followed up his 2010 rookie campaign with a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship. Dillon, a native of Lewisville, N.C., at age 21 became the youngest by six years to win a title in the 17-year-old series. He’s also the first North Carolina native to wear the crown and third former top rookie to capture an overall title. Dillon, under the leadership of crew chief Danny Stockman, proved his grit to succeed in a three-way championship struggle featuring another “young gun” James Buescher and veteran Johnny Sauter. He chased down and passed Sauter, who dominated the series standings through much of the season. Dillon withstood the near miraculous comeback of Texan Buescher, who’d handicapped himself by failing to qualify for the season’s second race at Phoenix. Dillon won the pole at five venues (Daytona, Kansas, Nashville, LOR and Kentucky) this season – more than any other competitor. His victory at Chicagoland in September was especially sweet, marking the first time Dillon had won with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in the field.
Ron Hornaday Jr. (Honorable Mention) – When the first half of the season started with three finishes outside the top-25, many wrote Ron Hornaday Jr.’s winning ways off. He won at Texas Motor Speedway in June and Atlanta Motor Speedway in September. Then Hornaday captured his milestone 50th victory at Kentucky Speedway, followed with his first win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. More impressive he won in two different Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet trucks, the No. 2 and the No. 33, and won with a pair of different crew chiefs, Bruce Cook and Jeff Hensley. Hornaday became just the fourth driver to compete in at least 300 races.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Johnny Sauter – This season was one of ups and downs, dominance and frustration for Johnny Sauter and his Ohio-based team. Sauter ranked no worse than second in the standings from March through the Labor Day weekend. He took the points lead for the first time in his career following a signature victory at Martinsville Speedway where he measured a solid field that included Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. From June through August, Sauter racked up a trio of second-place finishes at Kansas, Nashville and Bristol. Mechanical issues and several penalties, however, kept the points close and allowed 21-year-old rivals Austin Dillon and James Buescher to pressure Sauter. He made an impressive comeback, winning the season ending race at Homestead and finished second to Dillon in the standings by six points.
James Buescher (Honorable Mention) – Never give up is how James Buescher – who finished third in the series standings - will remember his 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season. Buescher qualified second and finished ninth in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. A week later, he wasn’t fast enough to make the field in Phoenix which dropped him to 24th in the standings. Then Buescher began what will forever be known as “the streak” in April. Beginning with a fifth-place performance in Nashville, Buescher went on a tear finishing 13 consecutive times among the top 10. He raced efficiently with calculation, letting the points pile up while rivals Johnny Sauter and Austin Dillon were hot and cold, charging forward and falling back.
ThorSport Racing – It was a banner season for ThorSport Racing and owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson – one of the longest running teams in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage. Drivers Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton nabbed a combined three victories (Martinsville, Iowa and Homestead), four Keystone Light Pole Awards and finished second and eighth in the series standings, respectively. The Sandusky, Ohio based team not only had success on the track, but off the track as well. In August, the team officially opened their new state-of-the-art 100,000 square foot racing facility.
Kevin Harvick Inc. (Honorable Mention) – All good things must come to an end, and Kevin Harvick Inc. went out a winner in the organization’s final season – capturing the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series owners’ championship in its No. 2 Chevrolet Silverado. The title was the third for what began as a single-truck, part-time operation fielded by DeLana and Kevin Harvick in 2001. KHI also won championships in 2007 and 2009, concurrent with Ron Hornaday Jr.’s third and fourth titles. KHI ended the season with an impressive combined 10 victories.
Top Breakthrough Performers
Joey Coulter – He could be considered the season’s biggest surprise, but Joey Coulter proved being consistent is the key to success for a rookie. The 21-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year winner had five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, including top-five finishes in two of the final three events of the season. He finished seventh in the final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings. Coulter – along with Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon – became only the second duo in history to earn the series championship and Sunoco Rookie of the Year titles in the same season from the same organization.
Nelson Piquet Jr. (Honorable Mention) – With a rich family history in racing and an impressive five-race deal last season, Nelson Piquet Jr. had everyone’s attention from the start of the season. The Brazilian native finished second at Nashville in only his 10th series start. He scored six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, including two fourth-place finishes in the final two races of the season. Despite battling streaks of bad luck, Piquet rebounded to climb his way back into the top-10 NASCAR Camping World Truck standings.
Fast Five 225 at Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 16)
One would expect a driver’s first victory to be the biggest race of his career, but his fourth? That is what Austin Dillon claimed following his fourth NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory after holding off NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. 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.
AAA Insurance 200 at Lucas Oil Raceway (July 29)
Spins are anticipated – if not expected – at Lucas Oil Raceway. However, recovering from them is a different story. What appeared to be a disappointing turn of events for Timothy Peters at the midway point of the event proved to be a blessing in disguise. A flat tire caused Peters to spin forcing him to pit for service out of sequence. The unscheduled pit stop allowed Peters to have the advantage over the competition in the final laps and chase down James Buescher – who led 97 laps – with six laps remaining to pull off the spin-to-win upset.