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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: Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among winners, losers at Kentucky

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton discussed the winners and losers among drivers in Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Letarte singled out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the losers after he failed to overtake Alex Bowman in the playoff standings. Bowman entered the race as the last driver above the cutoff line for the 16 driver field in the playoffs.

Bowman earned his first DNF after he crashed from a flat tire and finished last.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse finished 26th, one lap down after he had to pit twice early in Stage 1, the first time for a cut tire. He is now nine points behind Bowman for the final playoff spot.

“To only gain 10 points on a driver who finished last in the field is a huge missed opportunity,” Letarte said. “When you look at drivers scoring 30, 40, 50 points each, Paul Menard picked up over 30. So the chance was there to gain (on) that bigger group and he just didn’t do it. So when I look at what Ricky Stenhouse did, he really missed probably 15 or 20 points. I know it was a flat tire, there’s always a reason. But in the end you have to make the playoffs, you have to go out there and take it from Alex Bowman, who has put him in that position.”

Burton picked Menard as a winner. The Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 11th Saturday after finishing fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2.

He is now 18th in the standings, 23 points back from Bowman

“They performed well, got good stage finishes and did what they needed to do,” Burton said. “This team is starting to get a little bit better every single week. I find it very interesting that back there for that 16th spot it’s really a fight of mediocrity, to be honest with you, and who is going to not mess up.”

Watch the above video for more.

Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr. benefitting from surviving Daytona

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It took until July, but it seems Erik Jones has finally found his footing at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And the 22-year-old driver is somewhat keeping pace with one of the members of the “Big Three.”

Thanks to them surviving the carnage at Daytona, Jones – who won the race – and Martin Truex Jr. are the only Cup drives enjoying active streaks of top-10 finishes.

With Truex’s win and Jones’ seventh-place finish on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, they each have four consecutive top 10s.

The streaks began with the June 24 race at Sonoma, which Truex also won.

Jones’ Kentucky finish came after he radioed his team multiple times during the race about his concerns that his engine might blow up.

Jones needs two more top 10s to match his streak of six last season during his rookie campaign at Furniture Row Racing. That streak started at the July race at Pocono and ended with the regular-season finale at Richmond.

Here’s a look at the best top 10 streaks this season among drivers with nine or more top 10s (Jones and Ryan Blaney have nine).

Kyle Busch (15 top 10s) – Steaks of eight and six consecutive top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Kevin Harvick (15 top 10s) – Streaks of three, seven and four top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Joey Logano (14 top 10s)  – Streaks of three, six and two top 10s; Currents streak: one top 10

Martin Truex Jr. (13 top 10s) – Steaks of five and four (twice) top 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Kyle Larson (11 tops 10s) – Streaks of four and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Brad Keselowski (11 top 10s) – Steaks of three and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Clint Bowyer (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and three top 10s; Current streak: none

Kurt Busch (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and two top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s) – Streaks of three and two (three times) top 10; Current streak: none

Erik Jones (nine top 10s) – Streaks of four and three tops 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Ryan Blaney (nine top 10s) – Streaks of three and two tops 10s; Current streak: one top 10.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kentucky recap, Fantasy standings

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps the storylines from the weekend’s racing at Kentucky Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte from Stamford, Connecticut. Jeff Burton joins them from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

  • We take a look back at Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant performance on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. Is Truex better now than in his 2017 championship season? Our experts weigh in.
  • We’ll also hear from Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who both expressed frustration following top-five performances on Saturday. We’ll examine the ongoing competition between NASCAR’s Big Three with just seven races remaining until the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the playoffs, we’ll check in on the Bubble Boys. Paul Menard had a huge night points-wise, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drew even closer to Alex Bowman, who currently holds the final playoff spot.
  • We’ll take a look at Christopher Bell’s winning performance in Friday’s Xfinity Series race. Plus, we’ll find out who the big winners were among the NBC broadcasters in NASCAR Fantasy.
If 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.

Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”