By David Morgan, Associate Editor
When it comes to the early days of the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, two drivers immediately come to mind as big players in the success and growth of the series through the late 90’s: Ron Hornaday, Jr. and Jack Sprague.
Between 1996 and 1998, the two combined for 30 wins and a title for each of them. Hornaday, driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and Sprague, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, became natural rivals on track and heading into the 1998 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the championship was still up for grabs between the two of them.
Sprague started on pole, with his championship rival starting back in 10th place, and while both led laps throughout the day, it was rookie Greg Biffle who held onto the top spot as the checkered flag neared.
But when the caution flag flew for Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan crashing in Turn 2 on lap 165 of the scheduled 167, everything changed. NASCAR extended the race two laps to provide a green-white-checkered finish, and as they say, the rest is history.
Biffle held the lead on the restart, with Sprague in second, Joe Ruttman in third, and Hornaday in fourth.
Down the backstretch on the penultimate lap, Hornaday moved past Ruttman to take over third, while Sprague was hounding Biffle for the race lead heading toward the white flag.
Just as they crossed the finish line to get the white flag, Sprague and Biffle, who were side-by-side at this point, bounced off each other, allowing Sprague to take over the lead and in turn allowing Hornaday to sneak past into second place.
Hornaday set his sights on Sprague and the lead, but ran out of time to try and get past him, electing to settle for a runner-up finish in the race and his second Truck Series title.
Jimmy Hensley finished third, with Jay Sauter in fourth. Biffle wound up finishing fifth after the contact with Sprague knocked him from the lead.
With both Hornaday and Sprague winning that November evening in Las Vegas, they celebrated their respective victories together, pulling into the infield, driver-side to driver-side, before high-fiving each other and tearing through the dirt doing tandem victory doughnuts. Classic early years Truck Series entertainment.
“This whole NAPA Brakes Chevrolet team is awesome,” Hornaday said from Victory Lane. “Fred Graves (crew chief) and all these guys on this whole team have just got so much faith in me and I’ve got so much faith in them. But to win this thing, Jack Sprague won the race, to come home second. Emotional deal. Unbelievable.
“Jack tried to get in front of that 50 truck. The 50 truck hit him. They both lost momentum. I about won the damn race! But you know what, all I had to do was finish second. When they said I had enough room behind me, I could have aero loosened Jack and ran into him, but we needed this championship more than that win.
“What an awesome Chevrolet. These guys were just bad ass all day.”
As for Sprague, though he had won the race, the dejection of losing the championship by a mere three points was written all over his face as he discussed the closing laps.
“We had no choice. We had to win the race,” Sprague said of his dustup with Biffle. “I got beside Biffle for the lead and he just slammed me. Once I got by him, he moved over and let Ron go. The young man has a lot to learn. He don’t know a whole lot about racing, apparently. You know, that’s the way it goes.
“The way it looked, if he won the race, we were going to be alright, but he moved over and let him go. I don’t understand it. He’s going to be in this situation one day and he doesn’t have a lot of friends as it is, but I’m not complaining.
“We had a great year. Five wins and we knew we had to win the race and we went after it.”