Joe Ruttman’s extended NASCAR career concluded with four Camping World Truck series races in 2007. Always, he would playfully deflect questions about his age. He admitted only to being “older than dirt.” He was 62.
True, Ruttman was a decade older than even his oldest rivals in the end. But every CWT champion from 2004 through 2010 had his 42nd birthday in the rearview mirror. Maybe Methuselah owned a pickup truck.
James Buescher, an unflappable 22-year-old driver from Plano, Texas, figures prominently in a sharply altered perception of the 17-year-old Camping World series, however.
Buescher will accelerate into the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday night in position to secure the second consecutive series championship for a young gun on the way up, not a grizzled veteran whose next career move will be into retirement.
A winner a series-best four times through 21 starts, Buescher can celebrate a title by getting his No. 31 Exide Chevrolet to the checkered flag seventh or better in the finale, no matter how closest challengers Timothy Peters and Ty Dillon fare.
Dillon, 20, is the younger brother of Austin Dillon. It was Austin who, at age 21, changed the series’ landscape by capping a 2011 championship season with a prudent 10th-place Homestead drive needing only to finish 16th to clinch.
Not only did Buescher finish third in points last year, further reflecting a changing of the guard. But four of the top five in 2012 points entering the Ford 200 have yet to reach their 23th birthday. Peters, 32, is the exception. The series clearly has become what it was primarily intended from the beginning to be — a rung on the ladder toward the Nationwide and premier Sprint Cup series.
“People are making investments in young drivers,” Buescher reasoned by telephone last week. “The superstar drivers have been superstar drivers for quite a while. The next generation has to come from somewhere.”
Wayne Auton, NASCAR’s truck series director almost from its inception, couldn’t have said it better. “It’s hard to go from a weekly short-track series straight into NASCAR [Sprint] Cup,” he said. “The young guns have to get their training somewhere, and that’s part of our job here.”
That learning-on-the-fly dynamic, packaged with the chance to climb into a competitive mount instantly, has created a remarkable level of competition. A series-record 15 drivers have achieved victory in the 21 races to date, and eight of them are first-time winners, including Buescher.
Even more strikingly, 20-somethings have collected 12 victories and 18-year-old Ryan Blaney a 13th, with Sprint Cup invaders Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin cherry-picking three others.
“Who’d have thought we’d ever go through a season without Ron Hornaday Jr. winning a race?’’ a chuckling Auton said of the iconic 54-year-old, four-time truck series champion who remains competitive today. “It shows that the series is very competitive, whether you’re a young gun or a veteran.”
The series, long dominated by the likes of Hornaday Jr., Jack Sprague, Mike Skinner and Todd Bodine, has always had up-and-comers, Auton added. (Kyle Busch’s 30 victories helped prepare him for Sprint Cup stardom.)