Skinner breaks personal California curse
Mike Skinner harbored no visions of success at California Speedway. Forget the hometown connection and momentum from a top-five a week earlier at Daytona.
Some tracks just seem to have a hex on certain drivers. This one had Skinner's number.
"We went there thinking, if we went out with the fenders on and a top-10 finish, we'd have won the lottery," he said.
Then call this a Powerball winner. Skinner, who had finished no higher than 17th in three previous Craftsman Truck Series starts at California, claimed an improbable victory Friday at the San Bernardino County 200.
It was the second unusual finish in as many weeks in the series, as Skinner claimed the lead on one restart and held it through a second restart over Ron Hornaday, widely acknowledged as the best in the business at jump-starting off a yellow.
The best truck on the two-mile oval appeared to be the No. 21 of Mark Martin, as he dominated much of the latter half of the race until five laps remained, when the yellow came out after a spin by David Starr. On the subsequent restart, Hornaday's Chevrolet got into the back of the Daytona 500 runner-up, lifting the Ford's rear wheels and sending it spinning into the infield.
Moments later, Skinner slipped under Hornaday, claiming the lead just as the yellow reappeared. Two laps later, Skinner avoided the same fate as Martin as he successfully held off Hornaday on the restart, then cruised the final two laps to his 20th checkered flag. It was a memorable feat at a usually unmemorable place for Skinner, a native of nearby Ontario, Calif.
"Hornaday's just got a really good talent for those cold tires [on restarts]; he can get a lot out of a vehicle. He just seems to be able to figure it out. I knew I would have to have a restart of a lifetime, so the same thing wouldn't happen to me [as Martin]," said Skinner, declining to reveal exactly how he did it, figuring he may need to again sometime. "I talked to Ron Sunday night; he complimented me."
The win not only wiped away the Fontana frustration -- even in nine combined Cup and Busch starts at the track, Skinner's average finish was 22.1 -- but also put Skinner at the head of the points standings alongside fellow Tundra driver Jack Sprague. (Daytona-winning Sprague is considered the leader for now based on average finish, having a third at California to Skinner's fourth at Daytona. Skinner's five bonus points at California for leading a lap allowed him to tie Sprague.)
It's not too early for Skinner to be thinking about the points chase. He won the circuit's first points title in 1995, and a dozen years later he is adjusting his style to try to win another.
"I've got a different approach this year. I've never been a good points racer, but we're going to try to be a little more calm, not just go for it every lap," said Skinner, who was 10th in points last year. "I turn 50 this year, so I've got to figure out this racing stuff before I quit."
Skinner laughs at that, and laughs again when asked if he can really be happy as a "points racer." It wouldn't seem to fit him.
Then again, running well at California never did, either.
Racing fate dealt Travis Kvapil a tough blow in the season opener, when a possible Daytona win evaporated at the last second. His Ford was seen as the best truck in the joint that night. That wasn't the case one week later, when a perpetually loose Roush Fenway Racing F-150 struggled to a 16th-place finish.
"We never really could get it to where we needed to be. I'm just disappointed," said the 2003 series champion. "This truck is not as good as some of our best stuff, so we need to take a better truck and look at our notes before we go to Atlanta.
"More than anything, we're trying stuff that this team has never tried before. Without a lot of practice and no testing, really, it's just tough to do. We're trying to move forward and get us to the next level. It put us a step back."
He wasn't on the track for long, but 65-year-old Morgan Shepherd started the Busch and Craftsman Truck races at California. He drove the No. 44 Chevy Silverado for Key Motorsports, turning four laps before calling it a day.
The truck was run as a field-filler to boost the number of entries from 33 to 34, though still two short of a 36-truck full race. Since Shepherd was already at California Speedway to drive the Davis Motorsports Chevrolet in the Busch race (where he ran 18 laps before overheating), he was contracted by Key to start the No. 44 truck.
Friday night, Shepherd complained of being loose and shut it down soon after starting, finishing in last place.
"It was their backup truck for the No. 40 [primary truck, driven by Mike Bliss] and they told me to bring it in. They didn't want to take a chance on tearing it up," said Shepherd, who extended his mark as the series' oldest starter, having last run at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2003 at age 62.
One Craftsman Truck Series crew member was fined and suspended and two crew chiefs were penalized due to infractions at Daytona, NASCAR announced Friday.
Richard Riley, a crew member for the ThorSport No. 88 Chevrolet, was fined $5,000, suspended for six races through May 30 and put on probation until the end of the year for verbal abuse and threatening of a NASCAR official during the Chevy Silverado HD 250.
The crew chief of the ThorSport racing No. 88 Chevy, Vance Haefele, as well as Matt Puccia, crew chief of the Roush Fenway Racing No. 50 Ford, were fined $500 for violations found during opening-day inspection at Daytona.
Sprague's third-place finish at California was his 175th top-10 in the trucks -- 41 ahead of second-place Dennis Setzer. The Craftsman Truck Series will take two weeks off, returning Friday, March 16, for the American Commercial Lines 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Todd Bodine won from the pole last year on the 1.5-mile oval.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Boston Marathon hoax suspect due in court
- NCAA council OKs unlimited meals, snacks
- Sarkisian: Kessler is still USC's starting QB
- Source: QB Freeman nears deal with Giants