Hornaday, Sprague make KHI top truck team to watch in '08

With Jack Sprague, right, joining Ron Hornaday at Kevin Harvick Inc., sparks are sure to fly. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

It's almost a shame Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague now have to go drive. Since the Craftsman Truck Series legends were announced last year as Kevin Harvick Inc. teammates for 2008, the fun has been in listening to them swap one-liners about life on and off the track, how they used to race each other and how their new partnership might play out.

Why trade paint when you can trade barbs?

"Thinking about Jack Sprague as a teammate is pretty weird. I told Kevin Harvick that I'm going to go out and spin Sprague out the first time just to let him know who is the boss of KHI." -- Hornaday

Hornaday is the incumbent king, having won the championship last year over Mike Skinner in a tight points battle in which the lead alternated nearly every week during the final three months. It was the first championship for KHI, founded in 2001 with one truck for one race.

That day at Richmond, Sprague led 196 of 200 laps in his Hendrick Chevrolet in a win that put him closer to what would become his third truck title, but Harvick fought gamely only to come up short by 0.062 of a second, one of the closest margins in series history. Harvick, emboldened by the runner-up effort, began building a team for the long term.

He never forgot the up-close look he got at one of the series' greats, making a bid to hire Sprague as KHI's full-time driver for 2005. Sprague couldn't accept the job, having a manufacturer-sponsored Chevy with another owner, so Harvick turned to Hornaday, an old friend.

When Harvick moved from California to North Carolina more than a decade ago to start his NASCAR career, Hornaday offered a couch. Harvick paid it back in 2005 by offering the No. 33 Chevrolet. Hornaday had other offers but couldn't pass up the comfort of driving for Harvick.

Three years later, the 49-year-old driver gave his 41-year-old owner the championship. Not content to merely try for a repeat in the No. 33, Harvick offered his second KHI team -- the No. 2 Chevy shared by him and three other drivers part-time in 2007 -- to Sprague.

It was the kind of seismic move never seen before in the 13-year history of the series. Two three-time champions, with 61 combined race wins, would be teammates.

"It's pretty neat to have Jack and Ron both on the same team. I think a lot of people thought that might never happen 10 years ago," Harvick said. "Coming up through the truck series and being able to race against those guys when I first started, it's pretty neat now to have them driving our stuff."

"I'm not sure he still isn't convinced I didn't do it on purpose." -- Sprague, on a wreck with Hornaday at Indianapolis in 1998

"When [Harvick] hired me, he hired two new fabricators; when he hired Jack he hired four more." -- Hornaday

Both are unapologetic about their driving styles, each being the poster boy for the "tough trucks, tough racing" motto tied to the series (in part by Craftsman, which is abandoning its title sponsorship after this season). It was tough, all right -- tough on the competition, tough sometimes on their own trucks and, in a few memorable moments, tough on each other's Chevrolets.

Both drove under the Chevy banner for two of the iconic teams in NASCAR: Hornaday for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Sprague for Hendrick Motorsports. Hornaday won six races in the inaugural 1995 season, while Skinner claimed the title.

The next four years were a back-and-forth fight: Hornaday won the championship in 1996, Sprague won 1997, then Hornaday again in '98, and Sprague in '99. Over those years the two combined for 35 wins in 102 races.

Who would argue with those results? Well, they would.
Sprague won at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1998, getting into Hornaday along the way while trying to save his own loose truck. An in-car camera made it look like Sprague was guilty with his eye-catching white gloves appearing to steer his truck into Hornaday's.

"It took about two weeks for me to talk to Jack," Hornaday recalled.

Two years earlier, in Richmond, the roles had been reversed. Sprague was near the front with just a few laps remaining in a race about to be called for weather.

"He knocked the crap out of me, bent the fender brace into the tire and I ended up blowing out the tire, finishing [29th] when I was running second with two laps before a hurricane wiped us out," Sprague said.

"Just little things like that."

The rivalry didn't always involve dented sheet metal. When Hornaday won the 1998 title by three points over Sprague but Sprague won the season finale, both congratulated each other in the grass before turning double donuts. In 1999, Sprague won the title and credited Hornaday for helping in the season finale, which Sprague won to hold off Greg Biffle by eight points. Sprague bought Hornaday enough beer to cover a few weekends of parties during the offseason.

"There was a lot of the rivalry and intense moments. Not all of them, but most of them, were hyped by the media. That works, that sells, that made it interesting," Sprague said. "We certainly raced each other extremely hard, and we still do, but at that point we were both trying to be Winston Cup drivers, so we were hell-bent on election to do whatever we had to do."

In 2000, Hornaday moved to a full-time Busch Series ride with DEI, winning twice and finishing fifth in points. A Cup ride with DEI for 2001 failed to materialize, however, and he ran an uneventful season driving for A.J. Foyt. From 2002 to 2004 he went back to Busch full-time, then returned to trucks for 2005 when Harvick called. Hornaday won in his third truck start for KHI, added two more wins in 2006 and then won it all last year.

Sprague won his third truck title in 2001 and Hendrick gave him a full-time Busch shot in 2002. With a successful fifth-place season including a win, he jumped to a Gene Haas-owned Cup car for 2003, but that journey ended midway through the season after 18 races with an average finish of 30.6. He ended up back in trucks for 2004 and continued like he never left, always winning at least one race, always finishing in the top 10 in points. His last two and a half seasons were in Wyler Racing Toyotas, and now he returns to the manufacturer with which he won his three championships.

"We're not trying to get anywhere -- we're where we want to be," said Sprague, 43.

On the same team, their shared aggressive styles could be a big advantage. Todd Bodine and Ted Musgrave, Germain Racing teammates last year and the only other team in CTS history with two champion drivers, said their styles and preferred setups didn't match, diminishing their value to each other.

Sprague's and Hornaday's trucks arrived at preseason testing identically prepared and didn't change much during testing.

"We've kind of got an edge up on a two-truck program already because the drivers are already on the same page," said Rick Ren, Hornaday's crew chief. "It'll be a lot easier. I've tried to do a couple multicar teams at other places before, and there's always some inner friction. I haven't seen that yet and I don't think that will happen.

"It's hard to tell. You never can tell when you've got two foxes in the henhouse what will happen. But right now it's all been good, and of course that's easier on me because I'm trying to oversee both of them to some extent."

Ernie Cope is the crew chief of the No. 2, new to Sprague and KHI, so right now he's following Ren's lead. Sprague said he expects some growing pains and a period of acclimation with the former Busch crew chief, not unlike what Hornaday and Ren went through together last year as new partners.

He'll hope his new partnership can work out as well as theirs.

"The toughest part was riding up to his house, the two-hour ride from the airport on the icy roads with Sprague driving. That's scary." -- Hornaday, on an offseason snowmobile trip in Sprague's native Michigan

"I was worried he would go up there and wrap himself around a tree. He's kind of crazy." -- Sprague

The two have been friends much longer than they have been teammates, keeping in line with the current incarnation of truck racing. With the likes of Sprague and Hornaday, Skinner and Bill Davis Racing teammate Johnny Benson, Bodine, Musgrave, Rick Crawford and David Starr -- all 40 or over, all in the top 10 in points the past two years -- the series is an older man's game these days, and with age has come friendlier competition.

Ask any of the old guard and they'll tell you that before and after races, it's almost one big, happy family. That's understandable given such dominance -- the last rookie of the year to crack the top 10 in points was Carl Edwards in 2003, and Erik Darnell was the only full-time trucks driver under 30 to win a race last year.

Now add in a new partnership like this and the ante is raised even higher. Sprague and Hornaday are talking a good game now, but the on-track product could be even better.

"They'll be fine, they play that thing up more than it is," Bodine said. "They actually laugh about it, they've been friends a long time. Being that they're both super-competitive, it's just going to make them each better."

It's been a good act, the Ron & Jack Show, and they know it.

"We've got a good relationship, we've done a lot of things together," Hornaday said. "With trying to pump up the truck series, we've done a lot of things with the media. I guess we know how to play it. But we also respect each other on the track and put on good shows."

Five favorites
Ron Hornaday, No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet -- Of the 4,073 laps contested in 25 races last season, the defending champion completed 4,070, with 22 top-10s.

Mike Skinner, No. 5 Bill Davis Racing Toyota -- 2007 runner-up broke own record with 11 poles last year and finished in top eight of every race over season's first half.

Johnny Benson, No. 23 Bill Davis Racing Toyota -- Nine wins over past two years; five finishes of 27th or worse in 2007 prevented title run.

Todd Bodine, No. 30 Germain Racing Toyota -- 2006 champion's attempt at repeating never fully materialized, though he won multiple races for a fourth consecutive season.

Jack Sprague, No. 2 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet -- A ninth-place finish last year in a Wyler Toyota was a career worst, though that speaks volumes about his 11-year truck history.

Five dark horses
Rick Crawford, No. 14 Circle Bar Racing Ford -- Quiet fifth-place finish last year with no wins for first time since 2002, but 18 top-10s a career high.

Ted Musgrave, No. 59 HT Motorsports Toyota -- Left Germain Racing but remains in a Toyota, picked up win No. 17 (tied fourth all-time) at Texas.

Matt Crafton, No. 88 Thorsport Chevrolet -- Posted second-highest points finish (eighth) last year but still chasing elusive first win after 172 starts.

Erik Darnell, No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford -- 2006 rookie of the year won first race last season, now is veteran of Roush Fenway truck stable with Travis Kvapil moving to Sprint Cup.

Dennis Setzer, No. 18 Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia Dodge -- Four top-10 finishes in seven starts with BHR to end 2007 led to full-time job for '08. Earned 17th win at Mansfield, Ohio, last summer.

Five movers
David Starr, No. 11 Red Horse Racing Toyota -- Finished fourth in points and won a race with Red Horse in 2006.

Brendan Gaughan, No. 10 Circle Bar Racing Ford -- Saved number of crew from defunct South Point Racing; considered becoming ski instructor had this seat not opened.

Terry Cook, No. 60 Wyler Racing Toyota -- Series-record 247 consecutive-starts streak to continue in Sprague's former ride.

Stacy Compton, No. 4 Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia Dodge -- Stepping away from ESPN "NASCAR Now" set to take on first full-time truck gig since 1999.

Joey Clanton, No. 09 Roush Fenway Racing Ford -- Parlayed part-time ride last season into prized full-time seat at Roush.

Five rookies
Colin Braun, No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford -- No pressure here; No. 6 has only won 10 races over past two seasons.

Shelby Howard, No. 13 Thorsport Chevrolet -- 22-year-old former ARCA driver takes over truck driven to rookie of year award last year by Willie Allen.

Andy Lally, No. 7 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet -- Road-racing specialist finished second in GT class at Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Justin Marks, No. 9 Germain Racing Toyota -- Californian made four starts with Germain last year, including eighth-place finish at Homestead-Miami.

Phillip McGilton, No. 22 Bill Davis Racing Toyota -- Sixth-place finisher in ARCA standings will have good mentors in Skinner and Benson.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.