Monday, Nov. 4, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
A pair of blistered palms were proof that Ron Hornaday's 10th-place, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship-clinching drive was not quite as easy as it looked.
But for a really extreme degree of difficulty, you had to be riding shotgun with his truck owner at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday.
"I'm excited as I could be about it," said Dale Earnhardt, who now has eight NASCAR championships -- seven as a Winston Cup driver and one as a Craftsman Truck co-owner (wife Teresa is his partner both at and away from the track). "I've got a good driver, but I tell you, this was one of the toughest races I ever drove."
In truth, Hornaday said it wasn't quite as difficult as it looked, even though he started from a distant 18th on the grid -- the minimum spot he had to finish to hold off Mike Skinner and Jack Sprague, his nearest challengers in the championship chase.
Hornaday's No. 16 NAPA United Brake Parts Chevrolet wasn't a top-five truck Sunday, but it didn't have to be. He said as long as he could keep the trucks of Skinner (who finished seventh) and Sprague (who won) in sight, he knew the championship was his for the taking.
His final margin of victory was 53 points over Sprague. Skinner wound up third, 60 points behind Hornaday.
"I couldn't run with the lead pack and traffic was pretty bad," said the 38-year-old native of Palmdale, Calif., who finished third in last year's inaugural NASCAR truck championship. "The draft got me going sideways.
"I just wanted to run good and conservative. I didn't know where I finished. But when I saw Mike Skinner in front of me and could at least see the back of that green truck (Sprague's), I knew I was in contention for the championship."
Hornaday, who won four of the series' 24 races, said other than the buffeting from the draft, he had few close calls during the 175 laps around the fastest track on which the trucks run.
"I tell you what, they (showed) me a lot of respect," said Hornaday, who kept his nose clean despite often running in close quarters. "Ken Schrader ran me hard, Rich Bickle ran me hard the whole day.
"Look at my hand -- it looked like I was running a destruction derby out there. When I ended up in the top 10 I couldn't believe it, because I was running 14th, 15th, 16th all day."
But Hornaday said it might have been worse, were it not for Earnhardt. His truck owner made it into town for the last hour of Saturday's final practice, and immediately suggested a spring adjustment that made Hornaday's loose-running truck a little more stable.
"At the halfway point, he changed some more spring in the left front and that made it an even better truck," Hornaday said.
The ecstatic Earnhardt was only too happy to help his driver.
"He's awful good. That's the reason we did so good," Earnhardt said during a raucous victory lane celebration.
"We finished third last year so we knew we had a championship shot. Then NAPA came on board and did a great job with the sponsorship. And Action Collectibles -- this one's for them. They've been with us since the start."
But as he was all year, Hornaday was there at the finish. That's what wins championships.