Sprague worked hard for second title By Marty Smith
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 10, 1999) Jack Sprague defied logic by winning the 1999 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship.
Logically, most tasks are easier the second time around, but Sprague didn't find becoming a repeat champion anywhere remotely close to easy.
"This year was extremely difficult for this team for the simple reason that this year we had terrible luck," said Sprague, who also won the 1997 title. "Over the past four years we didn't have great luck, but we had steady luck. This year, it was all bad."
Well, it wasn't all bad; in fact, it was a stroke of good luck that propelled Sprague to the championship in the first place. Heading into Las Vegas at the end of September, Greg Biffle led Sprague by 130 points in the championship point standings. Biffle won the Orleans 250 just ahead of Sprague, who finished second.
However, in the postrace inspection, it was discovered that Biffle's Grainger Ford has an unapproved engine intake manifold and, although he was still awarded the victory, he was penalized the point difference between first and last -- 120 points. Thus, what would've been a virtually insurmountable 140-point lead was sliced to a mere 10, opening the door for Sprague's late-season surge to the title.
"They had a great year -- they won nine races," Sprague said of his chief competitor for the crown. "At one point we had a 165-point lead and was like, 'Shoot, we can cruise.' But man, in a matter of three weeks a broken motor at Indy and bam, bam, bam and all of a sudden we're behind. They ran great all year, did a great job in the pits. They're gonna be fine."
But Sprague, crew chief Dennis Connor and Hendrick Motorsports' GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet team are really celebrating, thanks to a dynamic close to a season that really ran the gamut of intense joy and crushing disappointment.
"It was not really and great season for us -- it was an extremely tough season for us," Sprague said. "Three DNFs, things breaking that don't normally break, trying to learn the new Chevrolet Silverado body, it was a tough year.
"It wasn't a great year. It was a great October. We were lucky enough to get the championship. We struggled and worked hard for it. It didn't come easy by any means. I was just out there doing the best I can do."
This season, Sprague's best proved fruitful. He started out the season in atypical fashion with a 22nd-place run in the Florida Dodge Dealers 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, he quickly returned to championship form, posting nine-straight top-10s, including back-to-back victories at I-70 Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. In all, he notched three victories, 16 top-5s and 19 top-10s in 25 races.
"We started off the year with a wreck and a DNF and no one's ever won a championship with more than one DNF -- this year we had three," Sprague said. "We had parts breaking and cut tires, which those things don't usually happen to us. That works on your mind a lot, but those guys never gave up. Team GMAC is awesome, they fought to the end and luckily October was our lucky month and things went our way. But before that it was looking really rough."
In the season's final month, the point lead changed hands three times after Sprague reeled off top-5s in two of the last three events -- including a victory in the season finale at California Speedway -- to jump past Biffle and onto the champion's throne, avenging last year's disappointment. In 1998, Sprague lost the championship to the series' other two-time titlist, Ron Hornaday by just three points, the closest margin ever in a major NASCAR Touring series.
"Every week it seemed like Ron and I were swapping the points lead back and forth last year," Sprague said. "I didn't get the money, I didn't get the big trophy but I felt like we both won that championship. We put on a hell of a race for the fans all year long. It's too bad anybody had to walk away a loser, whether it was him or me.
"I'll tell you, you race somebody like Ron Hornaday for the championship, you have the time of your life, but you also have your work cut out for you. That man has an awesome amount of talent."
As does Sprague, who now joins Hornaday as the only drivers to ever win two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championships. Sprague won his first "Tough Trucks" title in 1997, but it pales in comparison with this season's effort.
"This one means a lot more to me," the native of Spring Lake, Mich., said. "I may have taken the other one for granted, and I don't know that that's a fair assessment, but it seems like the second time around it means more to you in whatever you do.
"It was definitely a lot harder to win the second one. The first one, we just had to take the green flag in the last race and it was done. This one, we didn't until the checkered flag flew on the last race. It was a very difficult year mentally on the whole team."
Now, as the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series steers to the new millennium, Sprague will lead the way in the No. 24 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet, and has plans on becoming the first three-time champion the six-year-old series has ever seen. However, that task will be extremely difficult. It's hard enough to win two, much less three.