John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
Even fellow drivers can't decide who has the upper handEat your heart out, Sprint Cup. With no Chase gimmickry, the Craftsman Truck Series -- again -- brings the best championship battle to NASCAR's final weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last season, it was Mike Skinner bringing a 29-point lead into the season finale, only to see it bounce away with a loose wheel. Instead, Ron Hornaday Jr. won his third title. This season, Hornaday has a shot at a record fourth title and the Truck Series' first back-to-back titles if he can overcome the three-point deficit by which he trails Johnny Benson, a two-time most popular driver award winner who is seeking a Truck title to go with a 1995 Nationwide title. (Only Greg Biffle can lay claim to both.) Hornaday versus Benson has been the story of the Truck Series since July, and Friday night's Ford 200 will mark the fourth time in the season's second half that the pair have started a race separated by single digits in points. The three points separating Benson's Bill Davis Racing No. 23 Toyota and Hornaday's Kevin Harvick Inc. No. 33 Chevrolet represent the closest margin with one race to go in series history and the second-closest in the past 33 years of NASCAR. How good might Friday night be? How crazy has it been already? ESPN.com asked a number of drivers to reflect on the championship fight, the twists and turns of which reached a peak this past weekend at Phoenix when Hornaday and Benson made a royal mess of things -- and came out even closer in points by finishing 25th and 26th, respectively. Terry Cook, No. 59 HT Motorsports Toyota: "To think that both guys went into Phoenix separated by six points and come out separated by three with the problems both of them had? Who could have written a better script for the season finale? Hornaday spins out on the first lap; Johnny gets wrecked halfway through." Brendan Gaughan, No. 10 Circle Bar Racing Ford: "At the start of the race, I got through the wreck. I called my crew chief and said, 'Wow, did Kyle [Busch] take him out?' He said, 'No, they drove in hard, and Ron lost it!' I couldn't believe it. I come around the next lap, Benson's in the pits; I said, 'Tell me he hit Benson in that?' 'Yeah, Johnny got slammed in that.' I said, 'Wow, these two guys, this is going to be exciting.' That deal in the end with Johnny and the No. 7 [T.J. Bell], I was watching the Jumbotron under caution and thinking, 'I remember these days.'" (Gaughan crashed out of the 2003 Homestead finale after coming in as the championship leader. He finished fourth in points.) Mike Skinner, No. 5 Bill Davis Racing Toyota: "Phoenix has a short-track feel with semi-speedway speeds -- you're running off in that corner 145 mph or 135, whatever it is, you've got a truck outside you, you're grabbing a big handful of steering wheel and stomping that gas pedal down. On those fresh tires, the tires are cool, the trucks aerodynamically are very ill, the truck inside is always loose. "Ronnie probably thought a lot of things, probably didn't think Kyle Busch should be racing him so hard, but to Kyle Busch, it doesn't matter whether it's a championship or if you're racing for a Pepsi-Cola, he's going to race you the same way. He probably didn't think anything about it, and on the same token, he didn't do anything wrong." Todd Bodine, No. 30 Germain Racing Toyota: "First thing I said is, 'Well, Ron's out of this championship; Johnny's going to ride around the rest of the night, finish eighth or seventh and pull away in the points.' Then, lo and behold, Johnny has his problems. It's not unusual for that to happen, but to be in that situation and both crashing and actually tightening the points up, that's pretty interesting." One racer's reputation held true, one perhaps didn't, as Hornaday and Benson both finished outside the top 10 for only the second time all season. Colin Braun, No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford: "Ron goes after it every lap, tries to drive the wheels off the thing. I really respect that and have tried to learn a lot from him on how he does that. I would say Johnny is amazingly smart; he's one of those guys that maybe isn't the fastest or running at the front every lap, but when it comes down to the last few laps, he's always got himself in the top five or the top three or in the lead. That's just incredibly impressive to me." Matt Crafton, No. 88 ThorSport Racing Chevrolet: "Johnny, he's always been a hoot to race with. Hornaday, he's Hornaday -- he's tough to pass. He'll never give me an inch, but it's always good to race with him. It's not like he's going to wreck me. I'd say he's gotten better over the years; he doesn't race quite as hard every lap." Cook: "Ron's a go-getter, stay on the gas, every lap's the last lap, and Johnny is typically more methodical, work his way through the pack; he's not going to move you to pass you, he's not even going to rub you to pass you. But he's eventually going to get past you. Ron, I wouldn't call him a gouger, but he's a more aggressive driver than Johnny. You've got two guys in the championship battle that race completely different." Skinner: "It was a little bit of a self-inflicted wound that Ron created for himself, and darned if Johnny didn't self-inflict himself one later on. I think he should have been a lot more careful out there and made laps and hope he could finish in the top 10 or 12." Any racer says you put a weekend like Phoenix out of your mind the next time you drive. But how you attack what is essentially a one-race match for all the marbles, that's up for debate. David Starr, No. 11 Red Horse Racing Toyota: "They just need to go out there and do what they do week in and week out, which is race hard. I guess they're racing each other, but that being said, I think you just do what you do every week, which is try to win. There's so much pressure, if Ron says, 'I've got to beat Johnny,' or Johnny says, 'I've got to beat Hornaday by a couple of spots,' if they get so focused on that, then that might put you in a bad situation. I think they just need to go out there and just race." Gaughan: "In 2003 for me, maybe I should have just gone to win the championship; we had a truck that could win that race. "Don't change anything. If you can win and you're running for wins, don't change it. At the same time, if you know that somebody's got a problem and all you have to do is finish, maybe you'll change your strategy and race at the end, but maybe be more conservative in the middle." Bodine: "You can't say one is going to outrace the other, because they're both incredibly good and they've got great seasons and they're doing what they're supposed to do. It's whoever has the least amount of bad luck, whoever doesn't have a lug nut fall off, whoever doesn't get caught up in traffic or who doesn't get caught in a spin. That's who's going to win -- the other guy." And how do you handicap these two at a 1.5-mile oval? Hornaday's two Texas wins this season, including one two weeks ago, remain fresh in drivers' minds, yet so does Benson's win last season at Homestead. Dennis Setzer, No. 18 Bobby Hamilton Racing-Virginia Dodge: "Benson, if he brings out that same setup he had last year, he's gonna be exceptional. KHI's deal at Texas and these last few deals have been exceptional for Hornaday. I think it's going to be a big toss-up right now." Braun: "Hornaday has been extremely fast and extremely hard to beat on these 1.5-mile tracks; lately, the KHI trucks have really got something figured out. We've been trying to catch up to those guys a little bit, but man, they've been really fast." Then again, don't get the Toyota guys started. In September, NASCAR mandated changes under the hood that cut the new-generation Toyota engine's horsepower in relation to Chevy, Dodge and Ford. Cook: "We have struggled to be competitive on the big tracks; you see what the No. 2 truck of Kevin Harvick and Ron Hornaday have done since that change was made. Sure, they've put some Toyotas in Victory Lane, but week in and week out, as a driver, we drive off torque and drivability power, and we've never been able to restore that to where it needs to be. You've got a driver that won there last year, but he's taking a knife -- it may be a sharpened knife -- to a gunfight." Bodine: "Johnny's at a severe handicap; we all know that, even the Ford and Chevy drivers know it. Johnny and myself have talked about it before -- the biggest difference with the Toyotas now, you've gotta to keep them wound up, you can't slow down in the corners, you can't be a little tight or a little loose. You have to be perfect. That makes it harder on Johnny and [crew chief] Trip Bruce. That said, Ron still can have bad luck." Skinner: "Johnny got the ultimate break of the year [at Phoenix] and then let it slip through his fingertips. Now I don't know there's any way [he can beat Hornaday]. NASCAR has handicapped it plenty with the spacer plate on the Toyota engine. Changing the rules in the middle of the season really put us back, but you've got guys like Kyle Busch that have got their trucks really good and keeping up. It's only one position for the championship." And in that position Gaughan: "I'll put my Vegas handicapping skills here and tell you good luck -- it's a pick 'em. Momentum right now is in Hornaday's favor, with KHI winning Atlanta and Texas and Phoenix. Johnny Benson never won a [Truck] championship; maybe that puts a little edge in Ron's favor. He's been in this pressure cooker before, but it's not like JB is inexperienced. He has a lot more years in Cup racing than Hornaday, and that experience can almost cancel out. I'm going to sit back and watch as much as a spectator as everyone else." Braun: "I'm giving the edge to Ron. I'm not a betting man, but I think he'll close the deal." Erik Darnell, No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford: "The way things have been going, I wouldn't say either one has an advantage, especially if you look at the last race. Hornaday's been here before, been there, done that. But it's going to come down to who has the least amount of bad luck, really. Johnny was leading at Vegas [in September] and blew a tire. If both of them are still running, it's probably going to come down to the last lap." Starr: "They're bringing in a lot of new fans to watch to see who's going to win; they're really keeping it exciting all the way to the end. I couldn't think of two better guys than Hornaday and Benson to do that for our series. "Ron's been a great champion over the years for this series, but that being said, I guess I'd like to see Johnny win it for that simple reason. Ron's been there and done it, I'd like to see someone who hasn't won a championship win it." Skinner: "This is what NASCAR wants; this is what they've been famous for in the Craftsman Truck Series, this thing coming down to the wire. I hope some positive things come out of it. I hope it sells a lot of seats; I hope that a Toyota wins and it's a good introduction for our new sponsor." Bodine: "It's not going to hurt my feelings either way." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Helping hands for Hornaday
Three in a row for KHI