SAN FRANCISCO The curtain officially fell Friday night on the 1999 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season at the fifth annual awards banquet at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and the first item on series champion Jack Sprague's off-season list of errands must be a quick trip to the bank.
Sprague, a native of Spring Lake, Mich., celebrated his second NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship by accepting post-season awards of more than $350,000 during the tour's annual awards banquet.
The 35-year-old driver of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 24 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet won three races and $834,016 during the 1999 season. Upon adding his post-season winnings he also became the series' leading career money winner.
"The best thing that's happened for my family and myself was five years ago -- I was hired to drive the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy Truck," Sprague said. "And I was hired by a man who's attending his very first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Banquet, a man who is the best owner a driver could ever ask for -- Mr. Rick Hendrick and his wife Lynda."
Sprague has won $3.1 million during a 122-race career in the series -- every race that has been held in the division that first raced in point championship competition in 1995. He moved ahead of Ron Hornaday, winner of $3 million in his career and this year's seventh-place finisher in the championship standings.
Hornaday, a 41-year-old Palmdale, Calif., native who will transfer his NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship to the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division in 2000 as he continues to drive for team owner Dale Earnhardt, is the only other driver to have competed in all 122 races. He won twice in 1999 to boost his career victories total to a series-record 25.
Sprague, who said he was once a bitterly driven and competitive man, said Hornaday had been among those to teach him something about competition and co-existing.
"I am a very competitive person, and thought if I befriended other drivers and team members that it would compromise my competitive edge," Sprague said. "Over the past three years, I've realized I couldn't have been more wrong. Living proof of that is sitting right over there.
"Many of you may not recognize him without his NAPA hat on, but he's Mr. Ron Hornaday. You'll never find two guys that will race each other any harder than we've raced each other the past five years. And through it all we've remained good friends -- 90 percent of the time anyway. The other 10 percent he was knocking the hell out of me."
Sprague, who was seated at the head table with his wife, Rhonda, dedicated his championship to team owner Hendrick, who was among the Fairmont Hotel celebrants as a champion for the first time. In 1997, when Sprague won his first title, Hendrick was ill with leukemia and was unable to attend the championship festivities.
"Where would I be today without Rick and John Hendrick and the entire Hendrick organization? Your motorsports operation is second to none," said Sprague in praise of his owner. "I truly thank you for the opportunity you have given me, along with the team support and equipment to win championships for you."
Hendrick was equally appreciative in his remarks.
"It's great to be here in person tonight," said the owner, who has been largely absent from the racing scene while his treatments progressed successfully. "I've watched too many of these banquets on television for the past three years while undergoing the treatments for leukemia -- which have just ended -- and I'm happy to say I'm feeling stronger every day."
Hendrick was honored as the series' top owner, along with the team's crew chief, Dennis Connor. The organization has won at least one race and one Bud Pole in each of the tour's five seasons. Hendrick strongly praised his team.
"I want to congratulate Jack Sprague and Dennis Connor and this GMAC team for the unbelievable success you've had, not only this year but over the past four years," Hendrick, who also owns three NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams, said. "That includes two championships, two second place points finishes -- including last year when you lost by only three points.
"In 102 races you have won 16 times and claimed 13 poles. But what is really incredible is that in those 102 races you have finished in the top-5 a total of 62 times and in the top-10 a total of 86 times.
"I'm looking forward to being at more truck races this coming year and I want to thank Craftsman for their support of the series."
The series' top-20 drivers divided a championship fund of $1.634 million. Runner-up finisher Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., winner of a record nine events in 1999 in Roush Racing's No. 50 Grainger Ford, ran his season's total to $763,238 to become the series' 12th driver to win $1 million in a career.
Third-place Dennis Setzer of Newton, N.C., banked a career-high $628,835 after winning three times in K Automotive's Mopar Performance Parts Dodge. Hornaday was fourth among leading money winners in 1999 with $575,152.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Stacy Compton, Jay Sauter, Mike Wallace, Hornaday, Andy Houston, Mike Bliss and Jimmy Hensley.
Ford Motor Co. was honored with its first manufacturers' championship in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, bolstered in large part by Biffle's dynamic season.
Mike Stefanik of Coventry, R.I., was officially named USG SHEETROCK Brand Rookie of the Year and Setzer was revealed as the tour's most popular driver.
Sprague cited the support of the circuit's fans in his closing remarks.
"I want to thank all the great NASCAR fans for supporting NASCAR and the Craftsman Truck Series," he said. "This wouldn't be possible without your incredible support."