It was three hours before the opening practice of the NASCAR Nationwide Series weekend at Kentucky Speedway, and Jeb Burton was in the garage in his jeans and cowboy boots, peering into the hood of the No. 34 Arrowhead Chevrolet as crew members chatted around him.
The 21-year-old circled the vehicle a few times with studious eyes, helped remove the jack from the left side and pushed the car with his team to the Sunoco fueling truck. Once full, Burton helped give it another shove as the group looped back around the garage to take his car to the inspection station.
Last weekend was Burton's first time in a Nationwide Series ride, and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wanted as much hands-on time with the car as possible.
His curiosity and astute acumen paid off -- Burton finished his first Nationwide race in eighth place. And he wasn't the only Truck Series driver moonlighting at the Nationwide Series' final stand-alone event of the year who had success.
Those drivers are all confident that the momentum from their Kentucky conquests is transferrable as the Truck Series returns to the track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"This race was a lot of fun," Burton said. "The style and feel is completely different from trucks. I think if we had gotten more time in the car during practice, we could've run in the top five. But hey, for getting only 20 laps in the car before racing it, I think a top-10 finish is a win for us. ... We learned a lot, had fun and now we're even more ready for Vegas."
The Smith's 350 on Saturday in the Sin City is the 17th Truck Series race of the season, and drivers are running out of time to catch points leader Crafton. In the No. 88 Chevrolet, Crafton has notched 16 top-10s in 16 races. He leads second-place James Buescher, the defending series champion, by 41 points.
The 37-year-old driver's success this year hasn't been limited to his full-time Truck Series schedule, either. In three Nationwide Series starts, he's finished with two top-fives and three top-10s. His third-place effort at Kentucky Speedway this week complemented his third-place finish at the 1.5-mile tri-oval earlier this year.
"It's just a confidence-booster, without a doubt," Crafton said. "Each and every week, you get in something and run in the top five and be in contention to win races, it's always a boost for the driver. We've had some very fast trucks this year, and hopefully we can go win a couple of these next six races and close this deal out."
Vegas has produced some fantastic finishes for Crafton. In his past five races there, he has five top-fives, including three runner-up showings.
Then again, those three second-place showings can hurt worse than seeing a blackjack dealer draw a 5 while showing 16. The most painful of the bunch came last year when Crafton, who led 15 laps and was out front when the white flag dropped, couldn't hold off Nelson Piquet Jr. Piquet had stalked Crafton throughout the final laps, finally pulling off the pass on a slide job coming out of Turn 2.
"It sucks. It just plain and simple sucks," Crafton said minutes after last year's race concluded. "My God, that's a tough one to lose on the last lap. That's a very, very hard one to swallow."
Crafton has 12 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so he likely would have felt comfortable heading into the track regardless of his Kentucky finish. Blaney and Burton, meanwhile, are two of five drivers making their Vegas debuts -- Darrell Wallace Jr., Dakoda Armstrong and German Quiroga are the others.
Blaney has vaulted up to fifth in the standings, one spot behind Burton, with two top-fives and three top-10s in his past four Truck Series races. The victory at Kentucky was his first career Nationwide Series win in 15 starts and had the driver acknowledging he'd love to drive one of the Roger Penske Fords in the series full-time in 2014.
First, though, there's the matter of trying to win two consecutive races in two different series.
"Confidence of a driver is such a big thing, especially when you go win a Nationwide race and go back to trucks, you feel like you're on top of the world," Blaney said. "So I think it's going to help out a lot, give more confidence to everyone. Especially to me.
"We've had a lot of good runs the past few months, and it's unfortunate we got ourselves so far behind in the first half of the season, but that's what racing is all about. ... Right now our focus is to try to go out there and win these last, final races, and I think that, if the points work out to our favor, maybe we'll be right there."
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