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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.”

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick.

Below the cutline are Chase Briscoe (two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier), Michael Annett (12 points behind Allgaier), Noah Gragson (-17 points) and Austin Cindric (-30 points).

We’ll have the full updated Xfinity standings shortly. Please check back.

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Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbed Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just want over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went beserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said.  We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity race at Kansas

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After starting from the front row next to pole sitter Christopher Bell, Brandon Jones fell backwards only to roar back late to win his first career Xfinity Series race Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

With the win, the 22-year-old Jones, who was knocked out of the playoffs after the Dover elimination race, still had an impact on how the Round of 8 began.

Jones was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of late-race misfortune to Chase Briscoe and Bell, who were involved in a wreck with Garrett Smithley with 16 laps to go in the 200-lap event.

Equally as important was the great restart Jones got with four laps to go following another late caution that resulted from a crash that involved Joey Gase and Noah Gragson.

“This is incredible,” Jones told NBCSN. “I knew this would happen, we were going to come here and have an amazing run at the end of the day. … I’m not going to lie, my foot was literally shaking on the accelerator on the last lap, I’m not even sure I was wide open when I was doing it.

“There was a lot of nerve flow and emotion going through my mind but I saw it coming and I got pretty pumped.”

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

While Bell led 70 laps and Briscoe 33, their significant efforts were quickly derailed with 16 laps to go.

Briscoe was in the lead, with Bell right behind, when Briscoe tried to pass Garrett Smithley, who was five laps down at the time. But instead of yielding the high line on the track to Briscoe and Bell, Smithley washed up the track and Briscoe could not avoid contact, nor could Bell avoid contract with Briscoe.

Briscoe finished third, while Bell finished 12th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Christopher Bell (18th stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer (eighth stage win of season)

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Briscoe overcame the late contact with Smithley and Bell to finish third. Also having a strong outing was Michael Annett, who potentially might have had a chance at a win if the race had gone a few more laps.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Making just his sixth start of the season, Ryan Truex had his car blow up on him after just four laps. “It sucks, that was my last race in this car (this season) and probably the best car we’ve had since Phoenix at the start of the year,” Truex told NBC. “We had a top five car for sure. That really sucks that we don’t even have a chance to show what we’ve got. … To not even have a chance is really hard to swallow.” … Harrison Burton, who on Thursday was announced that he would race full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020, made contact with Austin Cindric on Lap 70. “To me, it just felt like I flat out got wrecked,” Burton said of Cindric to NBC Sports. “It’s unfortunate and frustrating. … I guess he didn’t want to race, he just wanted to wreck.” Burton finished 34th, while Cindric was 25th.

NOTABLE: Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick were involved in a pushing and shoving match for about 20 seconds after the race, but were separated.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity Series has next weekend off. It returns to action for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2 (8:30 p.m. ET start, on NBCSN).

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Kyle Larson injured ribs in ‘probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had’

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Kyle Larson says he plans to drive the full distance Sunday at Kansas Speedway despite injuring his ribs in “probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had.”

Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet ran into the No. 88 Chevy of Alex Bowman near the end of the second stage of Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (video above).

Though the Chip Ganassi Racing driver hasn’t had an X-ray, Larson doesn’t think he broke his ribs, but they were hurting enough to require an icing after two Friday practices at Kansas. Larson posted a photo to his Instagram Story of his wrapped midsection with the caption, “Big fan of Super Speedways.”

Because everybody says there really is nothing you can do about ribs anyway,” Larson said when asked why he hadn’t gotten an X-ray. “It’s not broken. It definitely hurts to sneeze and cough, and when I’m in the seat, it’s tender. I’ve never broken a bone, but it’s definitely not broken.

Though he already has secured a spot in the third round of the Cup playoffs through his Oct. 6 victory at Dover International Speedway, Larson said he will run the 400 miles Sunday.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said after qualifying fifth Saturday, pausing to smile. “As long as I don’t hit the wall or anything. It should be fine.”

Larson also crashed in the April 28 race at Talladega, going airborne and rolling several times in a wreck that was reviewed by NASCAR.