San Francisco (Dec. 8, 1998) Through the first eight races of the 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season, Jimmy Hensley was looking like an old driver. At the age of 52, his average finish was a disappointing 21.9. Things got so bad, team owner Richard Petty even fired veteran crew chief Freddy Fryar. But then Fred Wanke was brought on board to replace Fryar, and suddenly Hensley looked more like the driver of old. Once Hensley and Wanke hooked up, the No. 43 Cummins Engine Company was dialed in at just about every track it raced on. Hensley came to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1996 after earning runner-up honors in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division in 1985, 1987, and 1990, then Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1992. He had nine top-five finishes and 25 top 10s in 50 NCTS starts coming into 1998. In 27 starts this year, Hensley posted nine top-fives, 15 top 10s, and most importantly his first series victory in the Federated Auto Parts 250 at Nashville Speedway USA. The turnaround in Hensley's season began at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Loadhandler 200. Hensley finished ninth, his first top 10 of the year, and serving as consultant for the first time was Wanke, who had worked with Darrell Waltrip Motorsports in 1997 and shared three NCTS victories with driver Rich Bickle. Hensley and Wanke hit it off immediately, going on to a runner-up finish the next race in the DieHard200 at the Milwaukee Mile. It was a huge confidence builder for both team and driver. "We got a big shot in the arm today," said Hensley. "We're certainly better than what we've shown up until the last few races. That was bothering me. It was bothering the team, and it certainly bothering Richard. We're a better team than that. Maybe this will get the monkey off our back and we can go and do what we need to do and do it like we know we can do it." They did it like almost noone else could do it the rest of the season. The last 19 races of the season (when Wanke came aboard), Hensley's average finish was 7.5, better than anyone except the 7.47 posted by NCTS champion Ron Hornaday. In those 19 races, Hensley and Co. posted all 15 of their top 10 finishes, all nine of their top fives, and their first NCTS victory. Hensley, voted Most Popular Driver by his peers in 1996, started the Federated Auto Parts 250 at Nashville Speedway USA like he was living out a country song. He caromed off the wall during practice, putting his team behind the 8-ball for qualifying. Hensley would have to take a provisional, starting the race 30th. But Hensley moved quickly to the front, taking the lead once, losing it, then recapturing it when it counted to become the first series driver to win as a provisional starter and setting a record for the number of gained positions - 29. "It's an unbelievable feeling to get my first race here at Nashville where I have a lot of history," said Hensley, holding a new Gibson guitar in Victory Lane. "It's a great day for the team thanks to Fred Wanke, my crew chief and the entire crew who worked so hard in putting this truck together. I've been bashed and bruised, but I still can get to the front." There would be one more near-miss before the season ended. Hensley was leading the NAPA 250 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway late in the race when he got tangled up with Hornaday, allowing Jay Sauter to go around both drivers for the victory. Hensley still got second, but it was a tough loss for the local favorite from Ridgeway, Va. He took it like a gentleman, though, which is why he has earned the respect from his peers. "Our truck was awesome all day," said Hensley. "The guys gave me great pit stops and we had the truck to beat. Hornaday admitted he made a mistake and maybe I did, too. We have the utmost respect for each other (but) it was just hard racing. We're in this for a good show and I thought we put on a heckuva show for the fans here today." Hensley put on a heckuva show the last two thirds of the season. It brought him all the way up to sixth in the final NCTS points standings, and looking forward to the 1999 season. Now 53, Hensley is proving with Wanke that some things get better with age..
Source: NASCAR Online