- John Schwarb
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AROUND THE GARAGE
One could understand if this was starting to get stressful for Mike Skinner.
After a dominant first half of the Craftsman Truck Series season, the 1995 champion lost his points lead to Ron Hornaday. He would reclaim it three weeks later, only to lose it the very next time out. Then last week, with his fifth win of the season at Martinsville, Skinner got the lead back again.
SHORT DARIO DEBUT
Dario Franchitti accomplished his first goal at Martinsville, qualifying for his first NASCAR race. That was no gimme, given the unusually large field of 42 trucks running for 36 spots.
The race brought some valuable learning time, and he even ran as high as 15th in the No. 41 Dodge, but wasn't able to complete 200 laps on the short track. Franchitti went out after 148 laps in 33rd place, black-flagged as a result of damage from a crash on Lap 109 when he got together with Dennis Setzer.
Franchitti sustained left-front damage, and later went out of the race with rear-end problems.
"The truck was handling really well to start with and we were making good progress and really enjoying it. But we got really tight toward the middle of our first run there and we really started struggling," Franchitti said. "Then I got hit, spun around and it kind of got spoiled from then on. We came here with a program kind of thrown together a little bit to get experience, and that's what we did."
Franchitti will race this Saturday in the Busch Series at Memphis (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). No plans have been announced for more truck races.
Skinner has enough on his plate with the points race, but he's picking up more work anyway at Atlanta in the No. 36 Cup car for Bill Davis Racing. Jeremy Mayfield left that team, and Skinner and Johnny Benson will each take two of the remaining four races on the calendar. "Hey, we're going up there anyway, right? Hopefully we can get that car in the race. It seems like it's all about what happens on Fridays (in qualifying)," Skinner said. Setzer is some $45,000 shy of becoming the second truck series driver to pass $5 million in career earnings, and should have a good shot at getting that done this season while running the rest of the schedule in the No. 18 Bobby Hamilton Dodge. Sprague is the all-time leader with $6.7 million. Mark Martin will race at Atlanta, making his final start of the season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers/JTG Racing Ford. Mike Hillman Sr., Germain Racing's general manager, will take over as crew chief for Ted Musgrave this week. Previous crew chief Rick Gay left the team to pursue other opportunities. Hillman's not a stranger to the top of the pit box, he was the crew chief for Tommy Ellis in his 1988 Busch Series championship season.
Whew. At age 50, isn't this a little much?
"I've really not stressed over the thing, I'm not on suicide watch or anything," Skinner said. "If we are able to win this championship, that's just going to be the best thing ever. If we're not, we've had a great year. If you would have told me in February that we would win five races and would take eighth or ninth or tenth in points, I'd have said 'heck yeah, let's do it.' Whatever happens, it's going to be better than that."
The points race couldn't be any better. It's the closest in series history, with Skinner ahead by 11 points with four races remaining starting this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Skinner said the last time he could remember being in such a tight battle was in the then-Winston Cup Series in 1999, when he was driving the Lowe's-sponsored No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing and was frantically trying to crack the top-10 in points late in the season. Through 27 races he was in 11th, but a sixth-place finish at Martinsville put him into the top-10 and he remained there the rest of the way.
Eight years later, Martinsville remains a friendly place for Skinner. He won the spring race at the .526-mile short track and repeated Saturday in a smooth race where he said he rode along for a while just saving brakes and tires (he went the full 200 laps on the same set of Goodyears), taking the lead at Lap 135 when Terry Cook and Jack Sprague got together and his Toyota was able to slide by. Skinner led the final 66 laps.
Hornaday, on the other hand, survived a fierce battle for third. He and fellow Chevy driver Matt Crafton banged through the closing laps, with Hornaday getting sideways in the backstretch of the last lap. But he righted the No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. truck and held on for third, marking just the third time in nine races in which Hornaday and Skinner both finished in the top five.
"Our driving styles are nothing alike anymore. When we started in '95 we had very similar styles," Skinner said, laughing. "Now, he's still hits everybody he comes to in order to pass them, and he's still getting away with it, and [if] I touch anybody, they threaten to park me. Our styles are 180 degrees apart, but you know what, his style's working and my style's working. But it's funny because they are so different now."
In 1995 Skinner won the championship and Hornaday was third, then in 1996 the positions were exactly reversed. Neither of them should be as low as third this year, and Skinner promises he'll enjoy the ride the rest of the way, especially with his longtime competitor.
"We get along fine. It's funny, we got on the racetrack and we fight each other, we want to beat each other worse than anything," Skinner said. "We're fierce competitors, then we get off the racetrack and it's almost like the bell whistle blows -- OK, we're off work now, we can be friends again.
"We want this thing really, really bad, but if we can't have it, I'd love to see him have it."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.