‘Gong Show’ winner on fast track to Cup

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Todd Kluever finally got on NASCAR’s fast track by winning the “Gong Show.”

Less than 18 months after winning the Roush Racing tryout nicknamed after the once-popular TV game show, Kluever already has completed a successful NASCAR truck season. He is racing fulltime this year in Busch and is in line to take over in the No. 6 Nextel Cup car for Mark Martin next season.

“It’s been quick. Obviously, everything’s happened fast,” Kluever said. “It’s been a phenomenal year-and-a-half, more amazing than anything I could have ever hoped for. And it’s going to be even more amazing next year.”

The Roush team has used the “Gong Show” format for several years to find new talent. Kurt Busch, the 2004 Nextel Cup champion, came through the competition in 1999.

Kluever (pronounced Klee-ver) was running his own ASA team, which he financed as co-owner of a pub, when he got his shot at racing’s big time. He had been in the Midwest All Racing Series and had raced motorcycles and snowmobiles.

Kluever, who won his Roush ride in November 2004, knew it was his “last shot for a big-time opportunity and a big-time team” when he went for the tryout.

“I always believed I was good enough to be here. It’s just that in today’s world, it’s all about corporate dollars, how much money you can bring to the table or who you are,” he said. “It was more about chance and being at the right spot at the right time.”

Jon Wood drives for his family’s team, and like Kluever has gone from trucks to Busch cars and likely to Cup next season. He was part of Roush’s first “Gong Show” with Kurt Busch.

“It’s like going to spring tryouts for baseball, and the best man gets it,” Wood said.

In his first NASCAR season, Kluever was the top rookie in the truck series. He had 12 top-10 finishes and was 11th in points, only two outside the top 10.

The 27-year-old Kluever is now 16th in the Busch standings – seventh, not counting the Nextel Cup regulars who are dominating the series and have won the first seven races. Kluever finished seventh in the Daytona season opener, then his 12th at California was the highest-finishing non-Cup driver.

The Roush plan is for Kluever to run seven Cup races later this season. Then he will drive the No. 6 car next year, when Martin plans to leave the top series after 25 years.

Martin wasn’t even supposed to be in Cup racing this season, but was persuaded by Roush to come back for one more year.

While he’s fifth in points, Martin insists he will not extend his Cup career again. He’s mentoring his chosen successor.

“I’m trying really hard because Todd is in a new environment with these cars and in this series,” Martin said. “It’s not like he has a veteran crew chief leading him. I’m trying to give him a little small piece of that. I’m trying to help them move along.”

Late in the California race, Kluever was surprised when Martin came on the radio to talk about adjustments and provide some encouragement. Those in-race conversations have become routine, along with phone calls during the week.

“He’s been really, really, really supportive,” Kluever said. “It’s nice to have somebody like him call you up and say “Hey, man, don’t worry, it’s all good, everything’s fine.’

“A lot of people dream of Nextel Cup, and only a few get that chance,” Kluever said. “I was fortunate enough, but I also get to take over one of my hero’s race cars. That’s a pretty sweet deal.”

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