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Tough battles throughout trucks' top-20 LAS VEGAS, Nev. (Nov. 3, 1998) Sunday's Sam's Town 250 will settle -- finally -- the 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series' back-and-forth championship struggle between Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague. ...

Tough battles throughout trucks' top-20

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (Nov. 3, 1998) Sunday's Sam's Town 250 will settle -- finally -- the 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series' back-and-forth championship struggle between Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague.

Fittingly, the 13-point battle stands as the centerpiece for the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finale. But it's not the only issue to be resolved, just the richest and highest profile. Last year's title was worth $354,450 to Sprague.

In fact, 19 of the tour's top-20 championship positions remain to be determined. Only third-place Joe Ruttman, who'll be mathematically eliminated from the title hunt when the green flag waves at 6 p.m. EST (ESPN2, live), is the only top-20 competitor whose placing is certain.

Ruttman, who's never finished worse than fourth in three previous seasons in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, will occupy the same position he held at the conclusion of 1997. He collected more than $135,000 in post-season awards, including a point fund check of $108,000.

The Upland, Calif., veteran, who celebrated his 54th birthday last week, can go to Las Vegas with a single thought in mind -- defend his 1997 victory in the Sam's Town 250.

The same, however, can't be said for the majority of competitors among a pre-entry list of 50 teams. The 1998 season has been a year of goals-achieved for some, promises yet-unfulfilled by others.

Jay Sauter, Tony Raines, Stacy Compton and Jimmy Hensley certainly would agree, as they head for Las Vegas with hopes of retaining, or gaining, a top-five championship finish. Just 107 points cover the quartet, which counts a combined seven victories among 32 top-five and 56 top-10 finishes.

Sauter, currently fourth, has rebounded from an early-summer slump to post five top-10 finishes in his past six starts, including a victory at Martinsville Speedway. The driver of the GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet hasn't been further back than seventh-place.

Raines, a three-time winner, trails Sauter by 13 points, the same margin which Hornaday enjoys atop, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series standings. The LaPorte, Ind., series sophomore appeared to be a legitimate championship contender, until a series of accidents and mechanical failures caused September to be a wash-out for the Pennzoil Ford team.

"We are extremely proud of the progress we've made in our second full season of competition," team owner Kurt Roehrig said. "It's a team that should stay together next year, because their championship potential is outstanding."

Compton is sixth, another 69 in arrears, but hopes to regain a top-five ranking, where he resided as recently as Sept. 13. Compton has won twice, at Portland, Ore., and Topeka, Kan.

"We need to stay up front and win this thing when it comes down to the wire," said Compton, driver of the RC Cola Ford. "We're ready; let the chips fall where they may."

Hensley likely won't be unhappy, regardless of his point finish. Currently seventh, he's guaranteed a finish higher than his previous pair of eighth-place rankings. It's been a comeback year for Richard Petty's Cummins Engine Company Dodge team, which slumped to 23rd in the championship chase following the early-June event at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Ridgeway, Va., veteran likely would be neck-and-neck with Hornaday and Sprague for the championship, had the team not gone 0-for-7 in top-10 finishes to start the 1998 campaign.

"A good run at Las Vegas will help us in the points and prepare us for 1999," Hensley said.

The top-five is out of the question for the three remaining members of the current top-10 -- Rick Carelli, Greg Biffle and Ron Barfield -- and each faces the prospects of a tumble from that ranking if the Sam's Town 250 isn't a successful outing.

Carelli ranks eighth, 16 points ahead of Biffle, who's battling Andy Houston for the still-undecided Cintas Rookie-of-the-Year Award. Ron Barfield, currently 10th, is 48 further back. Barfield obviously wants to go up, but he's in peril of being overtaken. Mike Bliss, winner of the tour's most recent event at Phoenix International Raceway, is 23 behind in 11th-place. Houston trails Bliss by eight, while Randy Tolsma and Mike Wallace, respectively, are 25 and 33 arrears of Bliss.

The remainder of the top-20 is remarkably close, especially for the 20th and final cash position, which was worth $24,000 in 1997. Scot Walters is the current holder of the spot, 19 behind 19th-place Terry Cook. But Boris Said and Bryan Reffner still have shots at Walters, especially Said, who has rallied to within 31 with a win at Sears Point and top-10 finish at Phoenix.

"It's going to be a fight," said Walters, the third-place Cintas Rookie-of-the-Year candidate who has come from 119 points back to land in the 20th-position. "We've come long way this year. But the Red Man Chevrolet team has always come up strong, so this should be no different. We'll just go out there Sunday and do the very best we can and hope it's good enough."

The Sam's Town 250 by Las Vegas Events is the season's 27th and richest race, boasting total posted awards of $820,655, a series high, as well. Ruttman's 1997 first-place check was a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series-record $83,000.

The $1 million NASCAR racing weekend also features season finales for NASCAR Winston West Series and Featherlite Southwest Series competitors. Those championship-determining events will be held Saturday afternoon and evening. Seven competitors, including Houston, have entered both Sam's Town 250 and the NASCAR Winston West Series Sam's Town 125. Kevin Harvick, 16th in truck points and the Winston West leader, hopes to run all three races, beginning with the Featherlite Southwest Series Sam's Town 90.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Truck
Drivers Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Jay Sauter , Stacy Compton , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Tony Raines , Jack Sprague , Terry Cook , Joe Ruttman , Richard Petty , Bryan Reffner , Randy Tolsma , Jimmy Hensley , Rick Carelli , Mike Bliss , Ron Barfield , Kurt Roehrig