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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.”

NASCAR America: Assessing Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus’ historic tenure

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After 17 years, seven Cup championships and 81 wins, the checkered flag will wave on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus this weekend.

Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will mark the final time Johnson and Knaus will work together as driver and crew chief.

In 2019, Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering while Knaus will work with William Byron on the No. 24 team.

On NASCAR America, three-time Cup champion and Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham and Kyle Petty discussed the legacy of the Johnson-Knaus pairing and how it compares to what was accomplished by Richard Petty and crew chief Dale Inman and Jeff Gordon and Evernham.

“The most underrated record in this sport is five (championships) in a row,” Petty said, referring to the No. 48 team’s title run from 2006-10. “Nobody gives them enough credit, I just don’t think so. … The crew chief job that Ray did is a completely different job than what Chad does. The crew chief job that Chad does, Dale Inman wouldn’t even recognize it in 1967, ’68.”

Said Evernham: “Jimmie and Chad are right there with those guys. Without a doubt it’s Petty-Inman, Johnson-Knaus. What Jeff I did together was great, but we weren’t together that long. … To me it’s incredible to win that many championships, not just mechanically, but what it takes emotionally to do that. To hold those teams together and be that good for that many years is to me incredible. That’s longer than most marriages.”

Watch the above video for more.

 

NASCAR penalty report from Phoenix

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NASCAR has fined two crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts last weekend at ISM Raceway.

In the Cup Series, Luke Lambert was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut on Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet.

In the Xfinity Series, David Elenz was fined $5,000 for one unsecured lug nut on Tyler Reddick‘s No. 9 Chevrolet.

There were no other penalties announced.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Miami preview, Richard Petty and Dale Inman

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to set up the final race weekend of the year in Miami.

Marty Snider hosts with Kyle Petty and Ray Evernham from Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • We’ll discuss the final race together for Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, and their lasting impact on NASCAR. Another legendary driver/crew chief combo, Richard Petty and Dale Inman, give their take on the success of their fellow seven-time champions.

  • It’s the final NASCAR race for Elliott Sadler. The panel, including Sadler’s former boss Ray Evernham, share their fondest memories of the 24-year NASCAR veteran.

  • Plus, we’ll reveal the final three members of this season’s Pit Crew All-Stars.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

‘A lot of tears shed’ as Furniture Row Racing departs for last Cup race

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The final chapter in Furniture Row Racing’s history began overnight as the team’s hauler embarked on its journey from Denver, Colorado, to Miami for Sunday’s Cup season finale (3 p.m ET on NBC).

The race, where Martin Truex Jr. will compete in the Championship 4, will mark the 451st and final Cup race for the team that owner Barney Visser started in 2005. The team announced Sept. 4 that it would cease operations at the end of the year due to a lack of sponsorship.

Truex will try to deliver the team’s second consecutive Cup title.

The team’s farewell at the Denver shop was marked by a large gathering of team members.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was (Tuesday) night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said Wednesday in a teleconference. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend, and once it was in the truck and saw the lift gate up, there was a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces, and I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group.  … A lot of relationships have been built from that shop, and it’s a weird feeling for sure.”

Pearn said the occasion was marked with team members sharing “a few beverages” while they “told old stories and kind of reminisced.”

Visser said Furniture Row Racing “remained a team” in the months since the announcement of its impending closure.

“I am proud of the way they handled this difficult and emotional situation,” Visser said in a media release. “I think everybody who has had an opportunity to work in our shop is probably better for it. I believe they’re better craftsmen and have known or have learned what it takes to be a winner. On the flip side, I do feel a responsibility for moving the guys out here and want to see them get placed. That is very important to me.”

Visser said it will be “hard to give up” a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“It’s so rare to get a group of people you like being with, and who accomplish things that other people can’t seem to do,” Visser said. “Pretty special to find that chemistry and the success that comes with it. It’s hard to give it up, but sometimes it’s taken away from you without having any recourse. I just couldn’t keep borrowing money over here to feed it over there. Just had to give it up.”

When it comes to how involved Visser will be in NASCAR going forward, the 69-year-old Vietnam veteran said he hopes to attend some races next season.

“I am a huge racing fan,” Visser said. “I love the cars, love the smell, love the sound and love the people. I will be coming as a guest and fan next year and hope to sit in the stands for a few races. Never did that. My wife and I are looking forward to taking weekend trips to races next year.”