Hornaday bids farewell to
By Mark Zeske, SportsLine Sports Writer
June 24, 1999
The greatest rivalry in
motorsports of the late 1990s is coming to an end with the millennium.
Don't jump to conclusions. No, Jack Roush isn't retiring because he
got tired of sending five or six cars after Jeff Gordon each week and coming up short. And
don't even go to Formula One.
But Ron Hornaday is leaving the NASCAR Craftsman Truck
Series at the end of the year, leaving Jack Sprague to his own devices.
Sprague might not know what to do with
himself, because he won't have Hornaday to bang fenders and swap paint with.
Sprague just might go flying into the wall all by himself.
The Craftsman Truck Series is NASCAR's version of the wild West, a rough and tumble series
where no quarters are given and none asked. Sprague and Hornaday are the law and order in
the series, establishing the standards for everyone else. The two drivers are the most
feared gunslingers in the Craftsman Series, and the circuit at times seemed like it wasn't
big enough for both drivers.
THE TWO DRIVERS HAVE POUNDED on each other plenty since NASCAR founded the circuit five
years ago, but two instances stand out. One came at Indianapolis Raceway Park in August of
1998, while the other came in Richmond in 1996. Both times, one of the trucks, with a
little help from the other, didn't finish the race.
While those two incidents were dramatic, the rivalry thrives daily on the circuit, from
pre-race interviews to post-race quotes.
"They are the best drivers in the series, the toughest drivers in the series and the
most competitive," says Jay Sauter, who as another one of the top Craftsman drivers
has had a pretty good seat for the feud. "They go after it all the time, on and off
the track. Actually, it is pretty entertaining."
Hornaday has been racing in trucks owned by Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup
champion, since the circuit's first event, more than 100 races ago in 1995. Sprague
started racing for Hendrick Motorsports halfway through the first season and has been
driving the No. 24 ever since.
The rivalry actually has roots that date from before the Craftsman Series, back from when
Ricky Rudd drove for Hendrick on the Winston Cup circuit. Rudd was always rubbing
Earnhardt's paint the wrong way. The rivalry intensified in the mid 1990s when Hendrick
helped make Jeff Gordon NASCAR's new king, dethroning Earnhardt.
The Sprague-Hornaday battle is not much different than the Gordon-Earnhardt rivalry. Both
truck drivers want to win and that's not possible.
"Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Inc. have a lot in common," Hornaday
says. "They've got a great background, won a lot of races and have a lot of sharp
people working for them. We just race hard because we got two great teams. You got to beat
Jack if you are going to win the race. Hopefully, he feels the same way about me, that if
he beats me he has a pretty good shot at winning the race. It takes two great teams to do
THE PAIR COULDN'T AVOID A RIVALRY as they became the two best drivers on the circuit.
Hornaday won the 1996 championship, then lost his crown to Sprague in 1997. Hornaday
regained the title in 1998, but it took him to the last lap of the season. He won the
points championship by a minuscule three-point margin, earned when he made a last-lap pass
to move up a spot in the field during the last race of the year. Hornaday and Sprague rank
first and second in most career categories in the Craftsman record book.
Both drivers try to downplay the rivalry, but they are both true to their personalities.
Hornaday takes the feud more in stride as part of the sport. Sprague, meanwhile, seems to
take things more personally. He respects Hornaday as a driver but knows that they are
after the same things.
"My true feelings for him?" Sprague muses. "They're on and off. If we don't
have any problems, then they're great."
The very nature of the truck series pushes the rivalry to the limit. For a variety of
reasons -- the larger body of the trucks, the aggressiveness of drivers trying to make a
name for themselves, the venues -- the truck circuit is the roughest series in auto
"The trucks run close together all the time, short-track racing runs close
together," Sprague says. "There's just going to be a lot of contact, no matter
what. It is why fans show up."
Sprague and Hornaday each fit right in, both with a no-quarter-given style and a
competitive fire. "We both want to win when we go out there. We're definitely going
to knock some fenders," Hornaday says.
While Hornaday loves the truck series, he feels a strong sense of duty to Earnhardt, who
gave him the opportunity to be a NASCAR champion. Hornaday has said for years that he
wouldn't mind finishing his career on the Craftsman circuit, considered a stepping stone
to Winston Cup by many, but also that he would do whatever Earnhardt wanted.
WELL, EARNHARDT WANTS WHAT NAPA wants. NAPA, the sponsor of Hornaday's truck, would like
to move to the Busch Grand National circuit. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving up in 2000
from Busch to Winston Cup, Busch had both a team and a sponsor for the Busch Series. All
he needed was a driver, which turned out to be the loyal Hornaday.
Now all Sprague needs is a new rival for a new millennium, though he longs for a Winston
Cup ride. "It means more when you have to beat the best to win," Sprague says,
"but I can't say that I'll miss (Hornaday)."
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