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TRUCKS: A Rocking Good Time

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It had been a busy week, a busy month, a busy year for Andy Hillenburg.

He stood near the start-finish line at Rockingham Speedway early Sunday afternoon with a microphone in his hands and a crowd of more than 20,000 people awaiting his next words.

He took a second or two to take in the scene and the meaning of the moment, then told the gentlemen to start their engines. Thirty-six Camping World Truck Series engines roared to life, and NASCAR racing was back at Rockingham.

Hillenburg, the track president, took his wife, Michelle, by the hand and they crossed the track surface on the way to the tower overlooking the grandstands.

They were about to see years of hard work bear fruit – NASCAR racing again at a track that not that long ago seemed abandoned and largely forgotten.

The excitement of the moment was one of the reasons Hillenburg, a former driver who has connections throughout motorsports, chose to give the start engines command himself. On this special day, there would be no sponsor representative or celebrity at the mic.

“It’s a task that I think needs to be taken seriously,” Hillenburg said later. “This is the greatest sport there is, to me. I take that very seriously. I don’t want that to be a joke. I don’t want it to be a sales pitch. I want it to be for the love of the sport.”

That concept was tangible across the grounds of the old race track Sunday as thousands of fans gathered for what at times seemed like a combination of a high school reunion, a church picnic and a kids’ field day. There were smiles all around. Grandfathers led grandsons up the grandstand steps, and concession stands popped with activity. Even most of the security people seemed happy.

Some skeptics had doubted that the track, rough around the edges in places and, of course, still located far from population centers, could make the NASCAR return work. But tireless work by Hillenburg, his small staff and his network of friends and associates in the sport made the day a roaring success.

The race – won by Sprint Cup invader Kasey Kahne, who had “lost” the last Cup race at the track to Matt Kenseth in 2004 – was not a classic. There was not a lot of jousting at the front for the lead – only four drivers led laps, but there was some tight position racing and some bold driving on the track’s beaten surface, and a late-race caution bunched the field for an entertaining finish.

“Seeing those guys on and off the gas pedal and wiggling sideways and going three-wide as soon as they dropped the green – that’s what Rockingham Speedway is all about,” Hillenburg said.

The day, witnessed by a crowd announced at 27,500, was at least enough of a success to warrant a return of the trucks next season. At some point, there could be discussion of a Nationwide event.

“It’s still a little early for that right now,” Hillenburg said Sunday. “I still view having a NASCAR race date as a privilege. I want to get back the NASCAR report card. I want to hear them say what they thought of the weekend and how we did.

“We do want to keep growing forward, but I’m very, very happy with the Camping World Truck Series. It’s just like driving a race car. You get started and work and do the best you can.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.