Sprague comes so close, but falls short By Brett Borden
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 11, 1998) In sports, second place is the residence of the broken-hearted. It's a place where accomplishments are celebrated, but also stigmatized by so many whys and what-ifs. First place is the penthouse, with all the luxuries, amenities and trophies that come with the year-long lease. Third, fourth, and fifth, meanwhile, are usually reserved for the happy-to-be-here crowd. They aren't close enough to first to see what they are missing. In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Jack Sprague knows exactly what he's missing. Not only did Sprague get to live in the penthouse last year, he got to spend quality time in it this season. He got to take his racing shoes off, get comfortable, and kick back for another year of the good life. Then someone else sneaked in and pushed him out the door. To make matters worse, that someone was Sprague's archrival, Ron Hornaday. Hornaday had lived in that penthouse before, too. He knew the front way in. In the last two laps of this season he found the back way in. And since only one man gets to live in the penthouse, Sprague was sent packing. For Sprague, the most difficult thing to accept was the margin. Three points. Two laps. Winning the Sam's Town 250 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but losing so much more. Sprague needed a margin of two finishing positions over Hornaday to claim the championship. He had it going into the last two laps, then watched it evaporate as he took the checkered flag with Hornaday the closest truck in his rearview mirror. "All year in just two laps -- I did all I could do," said Sprague from Hollow Victory Lane. "We did all that we could do and that was win the race. To lose the championship by three points, I don't know if that's a good way to end the season or not, but that's what we've got to deal with. So that's what we will deal with." The funny thing is that so many things went right for Sprague in 1998. He won five races, and signed GMAC Financial Services as a sponsor midway through the year. He sprinted out of the gate, finishing sixth or better in each of the season's first 10 events. His "weakness" on short tracks, at least compared to Hornaday, became a strength. He even outzigged and zagged his nemesis on the road courses, and beat him on the big tracks. All he needed to do was live up to the moniker of "Big Track Jack" and another championship was in the cards. But somehow the deck got reshuffled. Celebrating his championship in Las Vegas, Hornaday should have shunned the champagne in favor of a six-pack. For in the six races run on tracks one mile in length, Hornaday notched four victories and never finished worse than fourth. Meanwhile, Sprague's favorite tracks betrayed him. No victories. A 31st-place finish at Pikes Peak International Raceway. An average finish of 10.5. Sprague outperformed Hornaday on every track configuration except the one he had previously mastered. By turning the tables, Hornaday got the plate of prime rib -- his second series championship in three years. "Everything but Mile Track" Jack got sloppy seconds. Sprague's first win of the season came in the NAPACARD 200 at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. It came in a tight short-track showdown with Hornaday, and Sprague knew that it foreshadowed a delightful duel down the stretch with his rival. "I'm all jacked up by beating Hornaday here," said Jack afterwards. "This is only my second short-track win. It's gonna be a tight race all season." That it was. The two played hot potato with the lead seemingly week-to-week. They had their rough spots, but the two developed a relationship of mutual acceptance. They kind of realized that one or the other was going to occupy the penthouse, so there was no sense destroying each other trying to be that guy. "You know, we're both hard racers," said Sprague, coming off of his second victory of the season, in The No Fear Challenge at California Speedway. "He won the '96 championship. We won the '97 championship. And I think for that reason we have a lot of mutual respect. We've had a lot of good races here lately with each other. A lot of the beatin' and bangin's gone -- the unnecessary beatin' and bangin'. We still rub and race and that's what racing is all about. He's a hard racer and I'm a hard racer and it seems like we're always together so you're going to have situations." One such situation came up the following week at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Sprague won the Cummins 200, his third win of the year. Late in the race he tangled with Hornaday. Hornaday got the worst of it on the track, but Sprague suffered more damage in the reputation department. He was booed lustily by the fans, and given the cold shoulder by Hornaday and others in the garage area for weeks. "Hornaday didn't see me," Sprague said. "He wouldn't deliberately come down on me. I really hated for that to happen. I don't race that way." Sprague would find Victory Lane two more times in 1998, in the season finale at Las Vegas and the Virginia is for Lovers 200 at Richmond International Raceway. He held off NASCAR Winston Cup Series star Ernie Irvan in a riveting race to the checkered flag at RIR. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He just won't be delivering a championship for Jack Sprague this year. Instead, Sprague will have to make do with a stocking full of goodies that most other drivers would love to see hanging in their trophy room. Sprague simply wishes it was hanging in the penthouse -- his penthouse.
Source: NASCAR Online