COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The path is clear, though perhaps a bit tricky, for young truck racers such as Joey Coulter and Johanna Long at Darlington Raceway this weekend.
With NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Nationwide series off this week, the spotlight belongs to the Camping World Truck Series' Too Tough To Tame 200 and up-and-comers hoping to make a mark such as the 20-year-old Coulter and 18-year-old Long.
"I don't know if it's more nerve-racking," Coulter said. "But it definitely makes you think, 'OK, if I'm going to do something cool, this is the weekend to do it' because it's all on us."
Most NASCAR weekends, the Camping World Truck Series is a solid opening act, whetting appetites for the bigger shows put on by the Nationwide and Sprint Cup drivers. The truck circuit blends NASCAR newbies with former Sprint Cup racers such as Mike Skinner and Todd Bodine, who won the series title in 2006 and last season.
So it's unusual when the trucks get the spotlight all to themselves -- and essential that drivers seeking sponsors and trying to make a name for themselves are ready to impress.
"They're going to be center stage and I think that's really cool for them," Darlington president Chris Browning said. "Let's face it, these guys are the future of our sport."
Coulter, majoring in mechanical engineering at UNC Charlotte, was approached by Richard Childress Racing last fall to run trucks after two years in the ARCA Racing Series.
Long, a high school senior from Pensacola, Fla., is the series' youngest competitor. She ran in seven truck races last season, her best result a 17th at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Long is grateful for the audience, but says any race is a chance to show off her skills. "I don't really look at it as a spotlight," she said. "Although probably a lot more people will be watching us in the race."
Darlington won't be totally without NASCAR star power this weekend. Sprint Cup star Kasey Kahne is driving for Kyle Busch's truck team, giving up a free weekend to do what he loves most.
"The season just started and we were off for a while," Kahne says. "This is a chance to go racing."
Kahne might have the early edge on the Darlington field. He won his first career truck race at "The Lady in Black" in 2004, then followed it a week later with a second straight series victory.
Kahne returned to the truck series last summer at Pocono Raceway, where he finished second to Elliott Sadler.
Both Coulter and Long have picked the brains of teammates and colleagues about Darlington's misshapen corners and tight, tight straightaways. The prevailing wisdom has it that if you spend too much time racing competitors and not the track, you'll be hitting the wall for a famed Darlington stripe.
"It's a historical place where many NASCAR memories have been made," said Austin Dillon, Coulter's RCR teammate. "This being NASCAR, you got to go there. You've got to go to Darlington."
Sadler, entered in Saturday's race, says he'll need all the experience he's gained in 25 previous NASCAR starts at the 1.366-mile oval.
"It's one of my favorite tracks," he said.
And a raceway that also has a unique opportunity to shine.
Darlington had been one of the sport's original racing palaces when Harold Brasington carved it out of farmland more than six decades ago. It hosted two Sprint Cup events between 1960-2004 before losing one of its weekends because of dwindling attendance and a crumbling infrastructure.
The track has seen a revival of sorts the past few years with its Mother's Day weekend date, as well as new lights and other improvements that have put it back on NASCAR's radar screen.
The truck series is the latest evidence. After six years away, the trucks returned last August with series champ Bodine gaining the victory. Browning said a strong turnout and good show persuaded the series not to wait to come back.
NASCAR's decision to push back by one week the season-opening Daytona 500 next year removes the chance for another truck solo, Darlington's Browning says. Still, he hopes the series can be a regular draw at the country track.
If so, count on young racers like Coulter and Long to dot the entry list looking for the breakthrough moment that could propel their careers -- no matter who's watching.
"I don't ever think about the (Sprint) Cup guys when I'm racing. I forget they're even in the garage because we're working so hard on what we want to do," Coulter says. "By the time they race, we're on the plane headed home."