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Real Rivals: Ron Hornaday, Jack Sprague and the Truck series of old

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Ron Hornaday Jr. remembers the crowd.

It was Feb. 5, 1995, and the NASCAR season wasn’t beginning on the coast of Florida with Speedweeks.

It began in the Arizona desert at Phoenix International Raceway as about 38,000 spectators watched the Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic, the first race of the SuperTruck Series presented by Craftsman.

“When we raced that (Sunday) afternoon you see all those fans there and all the trucks, just right then you knew it as going to take off,” Hornaday told NASCAR Talk in a phone interview.

The brainchild of Jim Venable, Jim Smith, Dick Landfield and Frank “Scoop” Vessels – four off-road racing enthusiasts – turned into the Camping World Truck Series, a NASCAR series that will run its 500th race today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Each of the 33 drivers in the field was a rookie that Sunday despite four “Winter Heat” exhibition races at Tuscon Raceway Park that winter.

At the end of 1994, after a race weekend at Tuscon where he competed in a Truck heat race for Wayne Spears, Hornaday returned home and received a phone call he didn’t believe would come.

“Buddy Baker told me, ‘Hey, keep your ears open’ and Richard Childress said ‘keep your ears open on the phone because Dale (Earnhardt) is going to be calling you soon to drive his truck next year,’ ” Hornaday recalled.

“I said, ‘Yeah, right.'”

Coincidentally, Hornaday’s shop was repeatedly the victim of prank calls from track announcer and radio personality Larry Naston pretending to be Richard Petty. On this day, Hornaday’s team members thought Naston was claiming to be Earnhardt.

They hung up on him multiple times.

But it was Earnhardt. At around 2 p.m. on a Monday, Hornaday talked to Earnhardt.

Soon Hornaday was on a plane and “then I was racing for Dale,” Hornaday said.

Hornaday was fortunate to have raced at Phoenix, having competed there 10 times in the Southwest Series. His 11th race and second win came the same day as the Truck premiere, where Hornaday started on the pole and finished ninth.

“(Phoenix) fits right into a lot of these drivers hands because they all came from short tracks,” said Hornaday, who would win his first Truck race – the series’ second – in April at Tuscon.

Among those drivers was Mike Skinner, driving the No. 3 Goodwrench truck for Richard Childress, who beat Terry Labonte in the No. 5 Dupont truck for Hendrick Motorsports by .09 seconds.

Also in that inaugural race were Ken SchraderGeoffrey Bodine and Johnny Benson.

But it was the driver who finished sixth who would keep pace with Hornaday through the founding years of the Truck series.

Hendrick Heaven

Jack Sprague remembers the intimidation.

At 31, the native of Spring Lake, Mich., had spent years bouncing between Late Model racing and the Busch Grand National (Xfinity) Series.

Driving for owner Bruce Griffin with a crew of four, including himself, Sprague was taking on giants of the NASCAR world.

“I remember being totally intimidated, cause we’re out there with all these trucks and a lot of the trucks were owned by Cup owners,” Sprague said. “Terry Labonte was racing, Hornaday was racing Earnhardt’s truck, all these guys with big ol’ teams and here we are four guys with a truck basically, no spare nothin’ and (I’ve) never been there before in my life and went out there and ran sixth.”

Over the next 12 races Sprague and his short-handed crew earned nine top-10 finishes, while Hornaday earned four of his six wins that season.

As the season progressed, Sprague was in touch with Dennis Conner, the engine tuner on the No. 24 Dupont truck driven by Scott Lagasse, owned by Hendrick Motorsports but operated by Billy Hess.

In 1996, Hendrick planned to bring the team back to Hendrick Motorsports and Conner would be the crew chief. Conner told Sprauge to “bug the crap out” of Jimmy Johnson, the general manager of Hendrick Motorsports at the time.

“That’s what I did, two or three times a week I would call and bug the crap out of him,” Sprague said.

The nagging paid off after 14 races. Sprague was invited to the team’s shop.

“I couldn’t get there fast enough,” Sprague said.

In Johnson’s office, Hendrick, present via speaker phone, asked Sprague,”You think you can win races in my piece of junk truck?”

Sprague’s answer – “Absolutely” – resulted in a race-to-race deal, but over the next six years would have him repeatedly asking himself, “How in the world did I score this deal?”

A Friendly Rivalry

“It was a good-natured rivalry 75 percent of the time. Twenty-five percent, it wasn’t so good, but that’s the way it goes,” Sprague said of the nine years he competed against Hornaday in the Truck level, from 1995-1999 and 2005-2008.

While Hornaday won six races the first season, Sprague didn’t break through until his 22nd race, at Phoenix, the second race of 1996.

Sponsored by Quaker State, Sprague won five times. But it was Hornaday, then sponsored by NAPA, who would claim his first series championship with four wins and 24 top 10s, two more than Sprague. Hornaday remembers the last 15 laps of that Las Vegas race because his spotter, Earnhardt, wasn’t answering his hails.

“I was asking ‘hey, am I clear? Am I good? Where you at?” Hornaday remembers. “He was underneath the tunnel running to victory lane because he knew we were going to win the championship … He pushed my wife out of the way and was the first person to hug me after that race.”

Sprague finished 53 points behind Hornaday.

A year later, Hornaday finished fifth with seven wins while Sprague took the championship with three. By 1999, each driver had two championships and Hornaday led the win total, 25-16.

“We were real rivals on the race track,” Hornaday said. “He stays mad about three or four days then you can talk to him.”

They weren’t mad at each other at the end of 1998 when three points separated Sprague from a championship that Hornaday won, despite finishing second to Sprague in the season finale. It led to the iconic image of the two drivers doing donuts together in the frontstratch grass.

A year later, Hornaday was out of contention heading into the finale at Auto Club Speedway. But as a Chevrolet driver, it became his duty to ensure that Sprague won the championship.

“I drove my guts out to keep the guys behind me so he could get enough points to win the championship,” Hornaday said. “The last couple of races I was the Jack Sprague road block.”

It was a successful endeavor. Sprague won the race and the championship by eight points over Greg Biffle, who finished seventh in the race, one spot behind Hornaday.

The two rivals clasped hands while standing atop their trucks. Sprague showed his appreciation later with a truckload of Coors Light delivered to Hornaday’s lake house.

One-hundred cases to be exact. Without a cooler large enough store all of it, it would take six months and “big ole parties” to get through the gift.

“Jack and I, we had a great time,” Hornaday said. “You go out there and battle hard and then you go to the motorhome. He might cuss you up and down, but he’ll still have beer or a pop afterwards.”

The Future

Hornaday and Sprague eventually gave the Xfinity and Sprint Cup series a try, but it didn’t take. By 2005, both were back in Truck full-time. They would eventually spend one season as teammates driving for Kevin Harvick.

Sprague, a three-time champion, hasn’t raced in the Truck series since 2008, when he was fired by Harvick five races before the end of the season, despite being eighth in the points.

Sprague finished his career with 28 wins, the last being an unexpected victory at Daytona International Raceway driving for Jeff Wyler.

“Daytona was definitely one of the best of my career,” Sprague said. “That was something I never thought I would be able to do.”

After two championships with Harvick, Hornaday competed for three teams from 2012 – 2014 before being cut loose by Turner Motorsports after 14 races in 2014 when he was fourth in points.

The two champions have taken different approaches to the end of their careers. Sprague embraces a life away from racing that involves rental houses. He admits he didn’t want to quit as early or as young as he did. He points to the economic crisis of 2008 and a lack of sponsors as part of the reason Truck lifers like he, Bodine and Skinner exited the sport in quick succession.

“I just hide away and do my own thing. Everybody’s pretty tight when you’re doing that deal, then when it’s over, it’s kind of just over,” Sprague said. “Believe it or not, I figured out there’s world outside of racing, which is kind of cool, and I never knew that until I quit racing.”

Meanwhile, Hornaday has re-entered the world of chassis fabrication while working on a dirt modified team with his grandson. Now 57, he wants to race in a Truck again in a proper farewell tour.

“I want to get a good truck ride and go out and show people and give the fans what they deserve, telling them thank you for all the support they’ve given over the years,” Hornaday said.

Should he get it, the field will be drastically different from the one he and Sprague headlined for years. The series no longer features veterans content to race a Truck year in and year out, but with drivers under the age 20 of getting experience before moving up.

But there is still two-time defending champion Matt Crafton, who has been in the Truck series full time since 2001.

“Crafton should be winning, my god, it’s been long enough,” Sprague said of the 39-year-old driver. “He’s not a youngster anymore either.”

Sprague is impressed by Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick, while Hornaday has taken a shining to John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer.

Neither former champion seems confident that the Truck series can return to a point where two drivers could compete for the championship on a yearly basis. Not when its dominated by drivers yearning to make their names at the next level or those who are there because of money.

“A lot of these kids, I hate to say it, are paying for their rides or their sponsors are paying for their rides,” Hornaday said.

“Nowadays, you jump into a truck and you don’t know half the kids you’re racing with, they don’t respect the old parts and I go back to running my first Winston West race. I got into Dale Schmidt and he was probably 15 years older than me and kept calling me a ‘young punk kid’ and I ‘had no respect’ and now I see what he was talking with these kids nowadays. They don’t care if you won five races or 1,000 races or if you won 10 championships or one championship.

“They’re just out there racing to make a name for themselves too.”

Sprauge still loves watching Truck racing, saying they still race “like they’re supposed to” but that it’s definitely changed from his six years “in heaven” with Hendrick Motorsports.

“I’m really glad and happy I was a part of it when I was, because just even watching it I don’t think I would enjoy what I did much better than I would enjoy doing it right now,” Sprague said. “I don’t know, time will tell, but these young guys that are getting put into the trucks, they’re getting put there for a reason at this point, just to get experience.”

“Like I said, we did it because we loved it.”

Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”