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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.”

Harrison Burton, Paul Menard exchange words after trading hits

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LOUDON, N.H. – There’s a 20-year gap between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton and seemingly just as wide a gulf in how they viewed their incident Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Burton, 18, finished 29th in the Xfinity Series race after being wrecked by Menard, 38, with 45 laps remaining.

Parking his No. 18 Toyota after completing 169 of 200 laps, Burton waited for more than 20 minutes until the race ended and then strode purposefully from the entrance of the Xfinity garage to the pits and confronted Menard for a terse but civil conversation.

“I wanted to get across to him that I got wrecked for no reason,” said Burton, who competes full time in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series was making the third start of his Xfinity career and the first on a track at least a mile in length. “I barely touched him. There’s barely a mark on his door. I don’t know if he’s heard of NASCAR before, but this isn’t F1 where if you touch someone, there’s a 5-second penalty.

“I barely touched him, and I got wrecked. He says that I got into him on the restart. I’m on the apron, and he comes down across my nose and then gets mad about it. When he watches the film, I think he’ll see that. I think that we just worked our butts off and didn’t get the result we deserve. We’ll just come back and race harder and beat him next time.”

Menard said he was justified to tap Burton in the left rear and spin the Joe Gibbs Racing driver into the Turn 1 wall.

“He ran into me a couple of times,” said the driver of the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske. “So I voiced my displeasure. He’s a young kid. He’s got a long time in this sport. He’s got to figure that stuff out pretty early. As he races more in Xfinity, and especially if he gets to the Cup level, they don’t put up with that stuff. I felt it was my place to tell him that’s not cool.

“A lot of these kids are good clean racers. He kind of stood out from the crowd. He had a fast enough car he could have been clean. I hate tearing up race cars. I didn’t really want to tear up his race car, that’s for sure. But sometimes enough is enough.”

Menard singled out Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson, both in their early to mid-20s, for having raced him cleaner than Burton.

“Some of these kids are really fun to race with, and some of them just don’t get it,” said Menard, a veteran of 14 seasons in the Cup series who was teamed with Burton’s father (and NASCAR on NBC analyst), Jeff, for three seasons at Richard Childress Racing. “So I think you have to cut that shit out at an early age.”

“Some of these kids have a lot of talent and don’t have to run into you to try to pass you. Harrison, I’ve never met the kid before. I know his dad really well. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jeff. Really good man. But the kid ran into me a couple of times, and that was enough of that.”

Though he had the chance to air his grievances, Burton was skeptical it would make any difference with how Menard would race him in the future.

“He doesn’t care,” Burton said. “He doesn’t care about anyone else but himself. But I’m going to just go out and beat him on the racetrack like I was going to today. I was driving away from him. I was gone.

“We were going to beat him on the racetrack, and that’s all you can do is just beat people on the racetrack and show them you’re going to outwork them. I’m fired up and ready to go for the next one.”

Results, points after Xfinity race at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell led 186 of 200 laps on his way to winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell beat Cole Custer to claim his fifth of the year.

The top five was completed by Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick and Paul Menard.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Tyler Reddick continues to lead the standings despite having two few wins than Bell and Custer.

He has a 56-point lead over Bell and 76-point advantage over Custer in third.

The top five is completed by Justin Allgaier (-146 points) and Austin Cindric (-163 points).

Click here for the full standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in dominating fashion, leading 186 of 200 laps and beating Cole Custer.

With the win, Bell’s second in a row on the 1.058-mile track, he is again tied with Custer for the most wins on the season with five.

Bell and Custer have finished 1-2 four times this year.

“I just had a really good race car,” Bell told NBCSN. “This track’s been really good to us and our team.”

The top five was completed by Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick and Paul Menard.

Bell’s win is the 13th of his Xfinity career in just his 59th start, tying him for the most by that point with Darrell Waltrip.

Custer, who started from the pole, never led a lap.

“There at the end I felt like we had a car that could compete with him, but I just wasn’t driving the car right at the start of the race and I got us behind on adjustments,” Custer said. “From there, we were kind of playing catchup.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brandon Jones won in a three-wide finish over Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Christopher Bell won with a 6.5 second lead over Justin Allgaier

MORE: Race results and points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Justin Allgaier earned his first top-five finish at New Hampshire in his ninth start … Ryan Sieg placed eighth for his first finish better than 15th at New Hampshire in six starts.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: John Hunter Nemechek finished 36th after he wrecked in Turn 1 on Lap 32 … Harrison Burton finished 29th after he was spun from contact with Paul Menard with 46 laps to go. That was after Burton had fought his way back into the top five following a slow early pit stop when a pit gun malfunctioned. The drivers had a tense post-race discussion on pit road.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I don’t care what series he races in or who he is. He raced me in a terrible way and I just decided I needed to hear from him what his story was. I didn’t like his story so I’ll race him accordingly.” – Harrison Burton to NBCSN after his discussion with Paul Menard.

WHAT’S NEXT: U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway at 5 p.m. ET July 27 on NBCSN

Check back for more

Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at New Hampshire

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the Cup Series’ final practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Blaney posted a top speed of 133.572 mph.

He was followed by Denny Hamlin (133.226 mph), Kyle Busch (132.739), Kevin Harvick (132.688) and Martin Truex Jr. (132.646).

Brad Keselowski (sixth) and Kurt Busch (14th) each recorded the most laps in the session with 61.

Blaney also had the best 10-lap average.

Click here for the speed chart.

Alex Bowman wrecked in Turns 1 and 2 in the middle of the session.

Bowman, who was already in a backup car after he had a driveshaft failure in qualifying Friday, will now go to a second backup car. The No. 88 team will use Jimmie Johnson‘s backup car.

Matt DiBenedetto‘s left-rear tire shredded twice during the session.

“Not a lot of warning, I’ll tell you that,” DiBenedetto told NBCSN after the first tire problem. “I went down into (Turn) 1 and I was passing (Landon Cassill), as soon as we got down into the corner I don’t know if we ran over something or what but the left rear went down in a hurry.”

DiBenedetto, who qualified seventh for Sunday’s race, was able return to the track to make a lap right before the session ended.