Rivalries on the Craftsman Tour

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (March 29, 1998) For 50 years, rivalries have fueled and ignited fan interest in NASCAR racing. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, the sanctioning body's newest major division, is no exception. In 1995,...

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (March 29, 1998)

For 50 years, rivalries have fueled and ignited fan interest in NASCAR racing. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, the sanctioning body's newest major division, is no exception.

In 1995, literally from the fall of the first green flag, Mike Skinner and Ron Hornaday waged a no-holds-barred, back-and-forth battle for the first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship. The pair won 14 of 20 events as Skinner, who now competes in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, captured the inaugural title.

Their rivalry extended into the following season and was joined by Mike Bliss, whose mid-season surge wasn't enough to keep Hornaday from winning his first series championship.

The division's second season also saw the emergence of Jack Sprague, who captured five races on tracks of a mile or longer. The new Roush Racing Ford team, with veteran Joe Ruttman at the controls, figured in several close races that Sprague didn't win -- including the division's first visits to the New Hampshire International Speedway and, in 1997, to Walt Disney World Speedway.

This year, the heightened level of competition virtually guarantees that push, sooner or later, will come to shove. The 1998 season opener, at Walt Disney World, saw the qualified field separated by one-third of a second. Predictably, the finish of the Chevy Trucks Challenge came down to a side-by-side, metal-on-metal duel between Ruttman and Mike Wallace.

Following a Turn 4 accident, on lap 196, Wallace's Purolator PureOne Filters Chevrolet left the track on the roll-back. Ruttman recovered to finish second, behind Hornaday's NAPA Brakes Chevrolet.

The season-opener's thrilling finish was among the major topics of conversation among fans, during the subsequent, 10-week break that ends with the April 4 Florida Dodge Dealers 400 at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motor Sports Complex. The $469,505 race will be broadcast by TNN: The Nashville Network and the radio affiliates of the NASCAR Truck Network.

Another rivalry was born or -- or in Ruttman's view -- got extended.

"Just a continuation of the Wallace battles with Joe Ruttman going back to the early Seventies," said Ruttman, recalling a U.S. Auto Club stock car race at The Milwaukee Mile which he led until a late tangle with Rusty Wallace, Mike's older brother. "We had some fierce battles back then. It's just another Wallace."

Mike Wallace's view? "Joe wrecked; I was a victim," he said, a few weeks after the dust settled.

Racing, interjected the 53-year-old Ruttman, is emotionally charged. Unlike team sports, where dozens of players win or lose together, a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series checkered flag sends one winner to victory circle -- and a bunch of non-winners go to the transporters for a long ride home.

There's one pie -- and it doesn't get split into 38 equal pieces.

"You take all these fellows who are accustomed to winning and throw 'em into one arena together," explained Ruttman, last year's Bud Pole winner at the 1.5-mile Homestead superspeedway. "Nobody wants to be a loser so nobody wants to back down. You can see that Mike is here to make a name for himself (by) winning and performing well.

"I'm not going to just roll over and let him, or anyone else, take the pie."

Ruttman, a five-time winner last season who owns seven victories overall in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, changes sponsors at Homestead. He'll now drive the No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford, following LCI International's exit as a Roush Racing primary sponsor. Chuck Bown, Disney's Bud Pole winner, was odd-man out, but is ticketed to drive the Florida Dodge Dealers 400 in another Ford, owned by Kerry Scherer.

And, despite Ruttman's narrow focus on winning, the Upland, Calif., veteran also is a pretty mean point-racer. Ruttman has finished second, fourth and third in the previous NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championships.

He is a legitimate candidate to become the circuit's fourth consecutive different champion.

"You have to be careful of aggression," he noted, suggesting that some of his hard-bitten attitude may be tongue-in-cheek. "Anger can get you in more trouble than anything else. The way you drive can change somebody's focus from the job at hand and then, you're on the right track (to beat him). It's something that's taken me 35 years to learn."

Ruttman, however, agrees that rivals and rivalries add to the drama of NASCAR competition. So don't expect him to be the shy, retiring type as the 1998 season unfolds.

"I'd just as soon wear the black hat, especially since I'll be driving a black truck," he said. "That's me, Black Bart." Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Truck
Drivers Rusty Wallace , Mike Skinner , Mike Wallace , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Joe Ruttman , Mike Bliss