The Camping World Truck Series will have a significantly different feel in 2012, as three big stories dominated the offseason headlines in NASCAR's most exciting and unpredictable national touring series.
The biggest news by far was the shuttering of Kevin Harvick Inc. Then outgoing series champion Austin Dillon was replaced with his younger brother Ty at Richard Childress Racing. Kyle Busch deciding to cut back his seat time in the No. 18 KBM truck will also have a dramatic effect on the complexion of the series.
Each of these three developments (and others) will have a dramatic impact on the look of the Truck Series in 2012.
When Kevin and DeLana Harvick announced the end of Kevin Harvick Inc. at the end of 2011, speculation on the impetus for the decision ranged from marital problems to money issues. But in January, we found out the happy reason for closing the very successful operation: DeLana is pregnant and the Harvicks want to be able to devote more time to family life.
Kevin also wants to be able to concentrate on winning a Sprint Cup title—he's finished third in each of the last two seasons.
The No. 2 and No. 33 trucks of KHI have been long-time powerhouse teams in the Truck Series, and driver Ron Hornaday Jr. won championships for the team in both 2007 and 2009. The removal of a championship-level organization opens the door wide for other teams to step it up.
Another immediate effect of the withdrawal of KHI from the series will be less of Kevin Harvick the driver.
Harvick made 22 CWTS starts from 2009-2011, and he made those starts count with 10 wins, including four last season. Without Harvick (and other Cup stars such as Elliott Sadler and Denny Hamlin) moonlighting in a KHI truck, truck-only drivers will have that many more checkered flags to win.
Meanwhile, Ty Dillon is taking over the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet from his brother Austin, who is moving up to the Nationwide ranks. Ty won the 2011 ARCA Racing Series championship, and he’d like nothing better than to have similar success in the trucks.
The youngster made three CWTS starts in 2011, with impressive showings in each. He ran a clean race in Kentucky and finished 18th in his first start. He then scored a third-place result at Texas, and followed that up with a sixth-place run at Homestead in the season finale.
Looking ahead to the 2012 campaign, Dillon will be a championship contender if he can keep up anything like that pace. Driving in the top-notch equipment owned by his granddaddy Richard Childress, it is well within the realm of possibility for Ty to follow in his brother's footsteps and take home the Truck Series championship in 2012.
Kyle Busch Motorsports, which won the owners title in its inaugural 2010 season, will also have a different look in 2012. Kyle Busch, who has 21 Truck Series wins in the last three years, is cutting back on his driving in the series, and the team has tabbed Jason Leffler to be its primary driver.
Leffler, who has long been a mainstay in the Nationwide Series, received the boot from Turner Motorsports following the 2011 season. Leffler is scheduled to drive at least 14 truck races this year for KBM with Dollar General as sponsor.
The California native, with one win and 10 poles in 46 career truck starts, should be an immediate threat to win races. He finished second in the 2002 Truck Series championship, and could be a title contender in 2012 if sponsorship can be found for the balance of the season.
All-time series wins leader Ron Hornaday Jr. had an up-and-down season in 2011 for Kevin Harvick Inc., but he still managed four wins and a fourth-place points finish. He's moving to the No. 9 truck of Joe Denette Motorsports in 2012, and it will be interesting to see how the four-time series champion fares in that equipment.
But 2011 was the first year for JDM, and the team ended the season 15th in points with seven top-10's. Hornaday ought to improve on those results, but whether or not the team is ready for championship contention remains to be seen.
What should we expect to see in the Truck Series in 2012?
I expect a close fight for the championship. Remember, Austin Dillon won the 2011 title by just six points over Johnny Sauter. James Buescher was just 29 points behind, despite missing the second race of the year! Ron Hornaday Jr. and Timothy Peters were also within 56 points of Dillon, and eighth-place Matt Crafton was just 103 points back.
I expect to see similar names at the top of the standings this season: Buescher, Sauter, Peters, Hornaday Jr. and Dillon—Ty Dillon, that is. As I mentioned earlier, Jason Leffler could make some noise if he is able to run the full season.
Todd Bodine, who won the series title in 2010, is also a dark-horse threat if he can nail down a ride for the season. He finished sixth in the 2011 standings despite driving for multiple teams throughout the year.
Bodine, a two-time trucks champion, has finished sixth or better every year since 2005. He has a ride with Red Horse Racing (Timothy Peter’s team) for Daytona, but has yet to solidify plans for the remainder of the season.
Whoever ultimately emerges on top of the heap, you can bet on another thrilling year of racing in the Camping World Truck Series. The series has proven time and again that it deserves its rough-and-tumble reputation for producing nail-biting action and wall-banging ferocity of competition.
Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!