Sprague, NetZero Chevy Roll To 2001 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Title
CONCORD, NC (November 5, 2001) - Jack Sprague closed out the 2001 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series the same way he started it - with a bang. A grinding crash on Lap 26 of the Auto Club 200 at California Speedway relegated Sprague to a 31st-place finish in the season-ending event. It was certainly not the way Sprague wanted the day to finish, especially considering he had just won an unprecedented third Truck Series crown just by taking the green flag in the division finale. While the crash was a disappointment, the latest title is the icing on a mountain of achievements for the 37-year-old Spring Lake, MI driver.
"I have been very fortunate," said Sprague, driver of the No. 24 NetZero Chevrolet Silverado fielded out of the Hendrick Motorsports shops. "I'm very proud of what I've accomplished, what Hendrick Motorsports has accomplished in the Truck Series. I'm just doing what I love to do. If all the records and recognition come with that, that's cool. That's not why I'm doing it. It's not about records or money. I make a decent living. I race to win and I race to win championships. Whether people want to make me into a hero or the greatest ever something because of that, that's their business. Like I said, I race because I love it. That's enough for me."
Sprague's run to the 2001 NCTS championship got off to a rocky start at Daytona when a pair of on-track incidents relegated him to a 12th-place finish in the season-opening event. Sprague then bounced back with a third-place effort at Homestead, FL and a runner-up finish at Bakersfield, CA before mechanical gremlins sidelined a strong run resulting in a 20th-place performance at Martinsville.
"The Martinsville race was pretty disappointing," said Sprague, who was honored prior to the event as the only driver to compete in all 150 NCTS races to date. "We had some difficulty adapting to the new engine package early in the season and it bit us at Martinsville."
Sprague's luck continued on the bad side the next three events with an eighth-place finish at St. Louis and a 12th at Darlington. The first-ever NCTS event at the legendary Darlington oval was a particular disappointment as Sprague won his first pole of the season and was second late in the race when a rain shower hit the speedway. Sprague's NetZero Chevy then suffered a flat tire while the race was under red-flag conditions. Back under yellow, Sprague came to pit road for a tire change only to have the race again red flagged, this time for good, producing the 12th-place effort.
Sprague's luck finally began to change with a third-place finish at Pikes Peak International Raceway (Fountain, CO) and a second at Dover (DE) Downs International Speedway. Then, on June 8, Sprague finally broke into the win column leading 123 laps of the 167-lap O'Reilly Auto Parts 400 at Texas Motor Speedway. It was his first win in 22 races and the 20th of his career.
"Man, it's been over a year," said Sprague, who had last won at Evergreen (WA) Speedway June 3, 2000. "Dennis (crew chief Dennis Connor) and the guys have given me great NetZero Platinum Chevrolets all year long. We've just had a hard time dealing with the Dodges and we gave away a couple of wins ourselves. Man, I had an awesome truck. I've had an awesome truck all year long. We finally got one."
Sprague's fortunes turned just as quickly at Memphis, TN. After winning his second pole of the season, a broken oil line while leading sent Sprague's NetZero mount hard into the Turn 3 wall producing a 23rd-place finish. Another pole and a second-place effort at Milwaukee were sandwiched between another 23rd-place effort, this one courtesy of an engine failure in the inaugural event at Kansas City, KS.
"We were just up and down, like a roller coaster for the first half of the season," said Sprague. "After Kansas City, we were pretty down. Fortunately, things turned around for us after that."
Sprague won the pole for the next two events - Kentucky and New Hampshire - using the top qualifying runs as a springboard to a third at Kentucky and his second win of the season at New Hampshire. The NHIS victory was one of Sprague's most dominating leading all but 17 of 200 laps.
"This doesn't make up for all the races we've given away," said Sprague, who oddly enough finished last in this same event a year earlier. "On one hand, I can't wait to go to the racetrack every week because I've had pretty good pieces. On the other hand, it's been hard going to the track because I've been hoping I could just finish. Today, my NetZero Platinum Chevrolet lasted all day. I even beat up the motor pretty good doing some burnouts after the race and the motor is still hitting on all eight cylinders."
Sprague's good fortune continued a week later at Indianapolis (IN) Raceway Park winning his second straight race and his third of the season in the Power Stroke Diesel 200.
"I don't think we were as dominant as we were last week," said Sprague in comparing the NHIS and IRP victories. "Joe Ruttman, Terry Cook and Ricky Hendrick ran pretty good. My NetZero Platinum Chevrolet got a little tight and I was worried for a while. We came in and changed left-side tires with about 100 laps to go and the truck really took off. After that, the truck was the best it was all night."
Sprague collected a number of records in motoring to his 22nd career NCTS victory. Included in the haul was setting the mark for most consecutive races led in a season - 11 - breaking the old record of 10 that Sprague shared with Mike Skinner (1996). Sprague also became the first driver to complete more than 24,000 miles in NCTS competition. Most importantly, Sprague, the 1997 and 1999 NCTS season titlest, took over the championship points lead for the first time this season.
Sprague's stay atop the standings was short-lived as the next race on the tour at Nashville, TN produced a 21st-place finish. A disappointing ninth-place effort at Chicago and a third at Nazareth, PA followed before Sprague got back on the winning track with a victory at Richmond (VA) International Raceway September 6. The win also put Sprague back on top of the points chase with five races remaining.
"We led the points three or four weeks ago going into Nashville and we didn't even take the green flag," said Sprague after the Richmond event. "My trucks have been unbelievably fast all year long even when we had problems. Some of it has been stuff we can't control and some of it was we shot ourselves in the foot. To be in the points lead with the type of year we've had has been just amazing to me."
In reality, Sprague wouldn't relinquish the points lead for the rest of the season. Sprague followed up the Richmond win with his sixth pole of the season, this one at South Boston, VA, establishing a career season best of five previously set in 1997. Sprague went on to finish fourth at South Boston before a return engagement at Texas produced a third-place effort.
Sprague then won yet another pole, this one in the series' return to Las Vegas (NV) Motor Speedway, and added a second-place finish in the race. Combined with sub-par efforts by his nearest challengers, Joe Ruttman and Scott Riggs, Sprague was in the driver's seat for his third NCTS title heading into Phoenix (AZ) International Raceway and the Chevy Silverado 150. A second-place effort, combined with an eighth-place run by Riggs and a 12th-place finish by Ruttman put them far enough behind so all Sprague had to do was start the California race to win his third championship.
"It was a solid day for us," said Sprague, after finishing second to Greg Biffle at Phoenix. "I had a great truck, this NetZero Chevrolet was of the best I have ever had here. I knew Greg would be good, he's always run good here. The bottom line was he was better than us on new tires. He was all over me and it made my truck real loose when he got behind me. Rather than take a chance, I let him go by. As the tires wore, I think my truck was better than his, but I didn't press it. He got a present today, he got a present. I knew what I had to do. If I had gone up there and fought with him, I might have got in the fence. If I would have done that, we wouldn't be sitting here in this good of shape."
That led to the California finale where Sprague took the title at the wave of the green flag. Despite the early exit from the race, Sprague was able to return to the track, albeit in a backup truck, to do some trademark killer burnouts on the main straight after the race. Sprague then jumped out of his truck and waved a huge American flag much to the delight of the huge crowd on hand for the event.
Sprague closed out the championship season with a bevy of NCTS season and career records. The only driver to compete in all 170 NCTS races since the inception of the series, Sprague also owns the NCTS career records for most Top-5s (98); most Top-10s (133); and pole positions (20). Sprague is also the NCTS all-time leader in money won (more than $4.3 million); laps led; laps completed; miles led; and miles completed. Included in Sprague's 2001 championship record run were leading the most laps (1380); most miles led (1431.02); most Top-5 finishes (15) and most poles (7).
"We were able to overcome some bad runs to win another championship - I'm very proud of that," said Sprague. "I'm proud we were able to give Hendrick Motorsports its third Truck Series championship, something that no one else has. Also, giving NetZero a championship in their first year in the series is something that we hoped to do and we delivered. It's great we could do that for Brian Woods and everyone at NetZero who believed in us."
As for his unparalleled seven-year run in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Sprague is humbled by the experience.
"The Truck Series has been great for me and my family. I've done and achieved things I never dreamed would happen when I first started out racing back in Michigan. This has been an awesome year and I'm proud to be the only three-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion."
Jack Sprague, NetZero Chevy 2001 NCTS Season Fast Facts - Final
* Jack Sprague won a record third NCTS championship this season. His other titles came in 1997 and 1999. He has never finished worse than fifth in the final season standings during his seven-year NCTS career.
* Sprague led the most laps (1380) and miles (1431.02) this season.
* Sprague's seven pole positions were top division mark and bested his personal record of five set in 1997.
* Sprague's notched 15 Top-5 finishes this season, best in the division.
* Sprague is the only driver to compete in all 170 NCTS events since the inception of the series in 1995.