CINCINNATI — For the better part of the past 12 years, Rick Crawford has been well aware he is part of one of the more distinct pairings in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series.
There are few drivers — as Crawford will attest — who have the benefit of working for an owner as loyal as Circle Bar Racing's Tom Mitchell and fewer still who hold so much of their boss's trust that they run the entire race shop on his behalf.
In recent months, however, the bond between Crawford and Mitchell has taken on even greater significance. As the Truck Series has seen some marquee teams struggle to remain in existence, the Circle Bar squad is proving again to be among the most enduring and productive in the garage.
While Crawford is set to make his record 309th career Truck Series start in Saturday's Built Ford Tough 225 at Kentucky Speedway, some of the names missing from this year's entry list are a reminder of how daunting it is for teams to endure amid the economic downturn.
Prior to his horrific crash in a Super Modified race in Michigan, defending series champion Johnny Benson had lost his Truck ride when Red Horse Racing shut down his team due to lack of sponsorship.
Three-time champion Jack Sprague lost his ride with Kevin Harvick Inc. at the end of 2008. Todd Bodine, the 2006 series champ, has seen his team struggle to secure sponsors this year, putting their ability to run a full schedule in doubt.
Though they've had to do their share of belt-tightening, Crawford's No. 14 Ford Circle Bar International team is in surprisingly good economic shape.
"You know, we're not really strapped to not be in it the next race or things like that. We are in pretty good shape," Crawford said. "We're very fortunate to have International as a sponsor and factory support from Ford Motor Company but ... it's a delicate situation and it could go the other way pretty fast if you don't keep an eye on it.
"I really don't think (Mitchell) has made many wrong decisions and he's kept me from making some wrong decisions," Crawford continued. "Usually, if I'm going to pull the hammer back I'm going to pull the trigger. Mr. Mitchell's advice is always have the hammer back and be ready to pull the trigger because sometimes you don't know what you're shooting at."
The father-son like bond Crawford and Mitchell share has helped make them one of the longest running teams in the Truck Series. It's a relationship that was forged long before the series materialized.
Crawford, a native of Alabama, has been driving exclusively for Mitchell for the past 18 years since he moved into the All Pro Series in 1991.
When the Truck Series debuted in 1995, it seemed like a natural next step for both Crawford and his owner. Instead of diving in, however, Mitchell waited to see how the series progressed before entering his team in 1997.
"Once we saw the big three automakers were involved and saw teams like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, and Jack Roush involved he was like, 'Let's step in and see what we can do,'" said Crawford, who also oversees the team's shop in Concord, N.C. "He's not one of those ego owners that comes in and spends a lot of money and then decides it's just not for them. He loves what the Truck Series offers."
Though he has yet to earn a championship, Crawford has been one of the series' most stalwart performers since his debut 12 years ago.
In addition to his status as the series' "Iron Man," Crawford has notched five victories and 152 top-10 finishes in his career.
The stat that weighs most on Crawford, though, is his ninth-place position in this year's points race.
After years of standing out for their consistency, Crawford wants Circle Bar to be known for its brilliance as well.
"We tried to extend our reach a little bit and what we were reaching for we're not ready to accomplish," Crawford said. "What we really need to do is take a small step back and be focused on the job at hand and go after them a little different. We'll be trying something new and a little bit different at Kentucky, so the team will be up for it. Just feeling the vibrations around the shop, I think the team is ready to go."