Bobby Hamilton spent 12 years racing in NASCAR’s top stock car series without ever finishing better than ninth in the points.

But since losing his Cup ride in 2002, when Andy Petree’s team lost its primary sponsor, Hamilton has moved to NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series and become a force, finishing sixth in 2003 before becoming the first driver-owner to win a truck title last season.

And Hamilton, who has won two races this season and is third behind Dennis Setzer and Ted Musgrave, two other drivers with Cup experience, is just one of an ever-growing group of former Cup regulars finding a home in the truck series.

Even longtime star Mark Martin is talking openly about putting together a full-time truck ride after he retires from Cup in 2006 or 2007.

Among other former Cup regulars already driving the big, boxy, competitive trucks – built on Cup chassis – are Jimmy Spencer, Ricky Craven, Mike Skinner, Jack Sprague, Todd Bodine and Johnny Benson – all among the top 14 in points as the trucks take a weekend off before resuming their schedule Aug. 4 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Six of the top 10 drivers in the current truck standings have spent at least one season in Cup. And so far this season, Cup regulars Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch both have paid visits to the truck series, with Busch winning twice and Labonte once.

“I miss racing (in Cup) now and then,” Hamilton said. “I miss my friends and I love road-course racing, I love some short tracks and I love restrictor plate racing. I miss some of that stuff.

“But I can tell you I’ve not really had the itch because I found out pretty early … if you’re not in a good car it’s not worth what you have to put up with. And there’s only about five cars in Cup today that consistently win. I was pretty fortunate to sort of make my own decision.”

Spencer also has found success and peace of mind in trucks.

“I know I could still drive and win in Cup. But to still be there and be a 35th-place team, or barely be in the race, I would much rather be in a competitive truck,” said Spencer, who finished sixth last year in his first full season of truck racing and is fifth so far in 2005.

Spencer, who drives for Ultra Motorsports, said there are other benefits to driving a truck besides just having a place to race and a paycheck.

“The scheduling is nice – 25 races versus 38,” he said. “The racing is a lot different than the Cup series, too. The trucks are slower, a lot more drag and a lot of different rules. Only four sets of tires for the weekend, 200-mile races most of the time. There’s a lot of reasons why the drivers see this as a real good series.”

Spencer said there’s a different mentality, too.

“The pressure’s not there,” he said. “There’s still a lot of pressure to win and run good, but not at the same level as the Nextel Cup.”

While Hamilton and Spencer seem content in the trucks, Craven, driving in the series for the first time, hopes it is a steppingstone back to Cup, where he spent 10 seasons.

“I have a desire to get back to Nextel Cup and compete and have success,” Craven said. “That’s part of why this path I’ve chose to be part of Roush Racing is so exciting, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

So far, Craven is making the best of the situation. He is sixth in the points.

“The fact is I’ve got a job to do, and I’m excited about this opportunity and I want to capitalize on it and I don’t want to make the mistake of being distracted by something else and allow that to have a negative effect on what this team is doing,” he said.

Terry Cook, who has never driven a Cup car and has been racing trucks since 1996, the second year of competition for the series, has no problem with the influx of Cup veterans.

“It’s very positive for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series to have Cup drivers enter the series,” said Cook, eighth in the points. “It makes the series continue to grow and become well-known among the race fans.

“The bottom line is we are in three businesses: motorsports, entertainment and product marketing. If it is Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Bobby Labonte or whoever it may be is racing with us on a part-time basis, it puts more people in the grandstands. The result is more and more people get exposed to it and that helps the sponsors who invest in our program.”

Greg Biffle, reigning champion Kurt Busch – Kyle’s older brother – and new star Carl Edwards all came up to Cup through the truck series, and Hamilton figures that having more former Cup drivers around will help make the series even better for developing Cup stars.

“I think veterans have made Carl Edwards, Jon Wood (now in the Busch Series), Biffle and some of those other guys better,” Hamilton said. “When this series first started, the first few years, how many people went to Cup? A few went and were gone in a hurry.

“I think it’s just like education: the better the education, the better you are when you get to the next level. I’m not saying we’re all the reason, because the guys have talent to do what they do, but I think racing against us is helping them.”

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