Teams Shuffle Drivers Before Homestead

NCTS teams shuffle drivers heading to Homestead DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 3, 1999) The domination of Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague during the past three seasons of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is having a ripple effect among their ...

NCTS teams shuffle drivers heading to Homestead

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 3, 1999) The domination of Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague during the past three seasons of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is having a ripple effect among their competition.

You might call it the "shuffle the deck and deal again" approach to winning one of NASCAR's toughest championships, which has only had one repeat winner - Hornaday, who won a year ago by a scant three points from Sprague.

The fifth season of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which begins with the March 20 Florida Dodge Dealers 400 at the Miami-Homestead Speedway at 3 p.m. ET (ABC Television, 4 p.m. ET), will see an unprecedented number of driver changes from 1998.

In fact, eight competitors who finished among the top-20 in the past year's championship standings, have new assignments for 1999.

That's 40 percent -- compared with zero just 12 months earlier.

"This is a business about running up front and contending to win," says Tim Stephens, team manager for Liberty Racing, where Kevin Harvick takes over the Porter-Cable Power Tools Ford which failed to post a top-five finish in 1998 after top-10 championship seasons in 1995 and 1997. "In any sport, if you don't meet expectations, changes will occur. We analyze ourselves daily, weekly and monthly. When you're falling behind the competition, you have to make changes."

Liberty Racing, co-owned by Cleveland, Ohio auto retailer Jim Herrick and retired NBA all star Brad Daugherty, is an extreme example of Stephens' proposition.

Yet, even Roush Racing made changes over the winter, releasing outstanding veteran driver Joe Ruttman in the wake of consecutive third-place championship efforts.

Mike Bliss, a superlative qualifier who -- like Hornaday -- has won in all four years of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, takes over Roush's No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford for 1999.

Other top-20 drivers getting fresh starts when they suit up in South Florida include Ron Barfield, joining the Gloy-Rahal Motorsports Icehouse Beer Ford team, replacing Tony Roper ; Mike Wallace, moving into the Team ASE Racing Ford vacated by Bliss; Ruttman, who moves to Kurt Roehrig's Fords following Tony Raines' jump to the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division; Randy Tolsma, released in mid-September when his previous team left the series, hires by Impact Motorsports, which will field a second Dodge out of a stable already boasting Stacy Compton; veteran Butch Miller, who left L&R Motorsports to join a new team owned by NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Bobby Hamilton and sponsor DANA Corporation also moves to the Tennessee-based effort; and Scot Walters, left without a seat when Brewco Motorsports folded its NCTS team, will compete in the Florida Dodge Dealers 400 in the Raynor Garage Door Ford owned by Floridian Marty Walsh.

In addition, Dennis Setzer becomes the full-time driver of K Racing's Mopar Performance Dodge. Twice American Speed Association runner-up Scott Hansen succeeds Wallace with Ken Schrader Racing, where Oakwood Homes is the new sponsor. Mike Stefanik, two-time defending champion of the Featherlite Modified Series, NASCAR Touring and Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring, takes over the Carlin Burners & Controls Ford owned by Dale Phelon.

Bliss, despite his past record, is ready to change hats, believing it's his best path to a championship. He has won six times, including victories at Phoenix International Raceway and The Milwaukee Mile in 1998, and was fourth in the championship standings in 1997 to follow a fifth-place the previous season.

The lengthy relationship between Bliss and his previous team's ownership, Marlene and Jimmy Smith, came unwound during a frustrating season marked by early DNFs and the departure of three-season crew chief Barry Dodson at the conclusion of 1998.

Bliss (and Smith) recognized the inevitable and the driver was ecstatic when Roush proffered a contract in mid-December.

"The No. 2 truck was an excellent team but I wanted to move on, to see if I could improve myself," says Bliss, who'll celebrate his 34th birthday on April 5. "The team has finished third two years now. I don't think I'll go backwards."

As for his chances of winning this season's championship, Bliss responds with a conservative answer. "With this team, the championship's there on paper, but once you start racing that doesn't mean a lot. I don't like to build a lot of hype. The biggest thing is to run the first race the best we can and take it from there. I don't want to concentrate on the number of races we're going to win. We just want to come out of the box strong, get top-fives and be able to make our move when it comes down to the last, few races."

Bliss, a native of Milwaukie, Ore., will be paired with fellow Portland Speedway graduate Greg Biffle, who won last season's NCTS Rookie of the Year title. And while Biffle is still looking for his first series victory, the Vancouver, Wash., driver -- like Bliss -- won four Bud Poles in 1998 and led five of the last seven events including the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"I'm excited about being with Greg, although after he beats me a couple of times, maybe I won't be so sure," says Bliss. "I hope we can carry on the same kind of relationship that Mark Martin and Jeff Burton have in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series."

In short, Bliss believes the pair's Ford F-150 trucks will be a formidable combination and a match for the Chevrolet driving tandem of Hornaday and Sprague, the tour's only $2 million winners.

"I really think Jack and Ron are going to have their work cut out for them this time around," he said.

Source: NASCAR Online

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About this article
Series NASCAR Truck
Drivers Jeff Burton , Bobby Hamilton , Ken Schrader , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Mike Wallace , Stacy Compton , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Tony Raines , Jack Sprague , Dennis Setzer , Joe Ruttman , Randy Tolsma , Mike Bliss , Ron Barfield , Tim Stephens , Kurt Roehrig , Butch Miller , Mark Martin
Teams Carlin