If winning a championship requires a championship move, Jack Sprague had just what the doctor ordered Saturday in NASCAR’s NAPA Auto Parts 200 at California Speedway.
With a lap and a half left in the Craftsman Truck Series race, Sprague took his Chevy low on the track on a restart after a caution period, passed leader Mike Bliss and second-place Ron Hornaday, winning both the race and the series championship.
Second in points before the race, Sprague, of Spring Lake, Mich., finished with 3,747 points, eight more than Ford driver Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., the previous leader who finished seventh in the race.
Not that all were pleased with the way things turned out.
Bliss, for instance, found fault with NASCAR’s calling the caution period with only seven laps left.
“We had the best truck out there today,” he fumed. “I’m pretty . . . off. There was no reason for the yellow. They put [fluid-absorbing material] down on the [track] apron. We don’t run on the apron! . . . We had the truck to beat out there. . . . If I would have won, I think Biffle would have won the championship.”
Spoken like a loyal teammate, which is what Bliss is to Biffle.
For his part, Biffle was still irked by a 130-point penalty he was assessed last month when a non-allowed manifold intake was found on his truck’s engine at a race in Las Vegas.
“It’s really disappointing, but it’s obvious that that’s what NASCAR wanted,” he said. “Look, we got nine wins this year in the series. Nobody [else] has been able to do that. It’s obvious that the only reason we lost the championship is because of the point penalty. We feel like we won the championship.”
If Biffle had finished fifth, he would have won the title, but instead, he was unable to catch a draft on the restart and dropped a position, then had to race to get that back.
“I don’t know what happened there at the end,” he said. “I just couldn’t get any help [with a draft from another truck].”
Not that it mattered to Sprague, who lost the championship last year by three points.
“I don’t think it’s all quite sunk in yet,” he said.
He did acknowledge help from Hornaday, his longtime friend and rival who is leaving the truck series to run NASCAR’s Busch late-model series next season, on the restart.
“The plan was that both of us were going to go past Bliss,” Sprague said. “Ron just helped me all day today [with a draft] and he helped me there. I was going by Bliss with Hornaday and I thought, ‘If I can win this thing, I can nail the coffin [on Biffle].’ ”
Said Hornaday, “That drafting stuff that comes into play there at the end is unbelievable when you’ve got the old throttle mashed to the wall, like we do here at California.”
Stacy Compton, who finished third in a Dodge, was involved in the scramble on the restart and said, “I got to working Joe Ruttman and coming out of Turn 2, [Hornaday] was working hard on [Bliss] . . . and we went all the way down to the grass [adjoining the apron]. I knew it was going to be real, real good or real, real bad.”
Some of each, as it turns out. Really good for Sprague, who finished with an average speed of 128.09 mph for the 200-mile race, a race and a championship in the bag; bad enough for Bliss and real bad for teammate Biffle. Even Hornaday lost a possible podium finish, his Chevy dropping from second to sixth in the scramble on the restart.