Disastrous ending to 2007 season still a major thorn for Skinner

Updated: February 14, 2008

AP Photo/Terry Renna

The wheel came off Mike Skinner's championship hopes Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Skinner Hoping To Solve '07 Shortcomings

For all the success Mike Skinner had in the 2007 Craftsman Truck Series season, the lasting image from the season finale could not have been more baffling.

Here was a driver with a series-best five wins and record 11 poles, perhaps on his way to a championship at the start of the Ford 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Here was that same driver less than an hour later, pulling into the pits on Lap 74 on three wheels.

With a 29-point lead over Ron Hornaday entering the race, the end result from a fierce two-month battle that saw the lead switch six times between the former champion veterans, Skinner's crowning as champion wasn't a guarantee. But losing the opportunity like this?

"A heck of a way to end a great season," Skinner said. "A tough thing to swallow."

Skinner led the race early, only to pit out of sequence for what he thought was a low right-side tire. His Bill Davis Racing team changed the right Goodyears, but neither turned out to be going flat. Skinner was correct about something being out of kilter, however, as a vibration developed again near the midpoint of the race. He pitted again and a left-rear wheel flew off before he reached pit road, and subsequent damage to the hub put him behind the wall for extended repairs.

His title chance vanished, kicking off what has been three months of wondering what happened and waiting to start anew.

"It's just motivation for our race team," Skinner said. "I'm not over it. I'm still mad. I hope there wasn't any dirty pool going on, but it sure appeared that way to us."

The assertion from the 1995 champion -- who has just about seen it all in 30 years of racing -- is that something might have happened to the lug nuts on his truck before the race began. It's quite the grassy-knoll theory, or maybe just a way to explain the unexplainable.

"We could not determine any real clear-cut deal of what happened. We have some ideas mechanically, but I think Mike has a different idea," crew chief Jeff Hensley said. "He thinks someone may have loosened the lug nuts in the impound area, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. But it is professional racing and there's a lot at stake and you never put anything past anybody. We may have had a bad wheel, may have had a bad set of studs. It would have only taken one stud to fail, then that strains the other four. Without any clear-cut proof of what happened, I've got to say it's a parts failure.

"It is kind of suspicious that we ran 24 races without a single issue of anything. We keep good records of where the wheels raced, and that particular left wheel ran on the right side [two races prior] at Texas. It's not like it wasn't a wheel that wasn't registered and proven. But I will say, it being on the left side, if it happened to be a bad wheel or happen to be a bad stud, that is the side that would come loose first, just because of the centrifugal force and the way the wheels are rotating."

Yet as quickly as Skinner and Hensley can explain their thoughts of what may have conspired that mid-November weekend, they can change the subject to the present and what this season could have in store.

The union of Hornaday and new KHI teammate Jack Sprague, both three-time champions and rivals in the series' early years, has been the story of the offseason, almost relegating Skinner's bunch to an afterthought.

They're not complaining.

"It's allowed us not to get caught up in all the bull that goes on, to keep our head down and keep digging," Hensley said. "Hopefully by the end of March, after the first four races are run, teams will say 'We forgot all about those guys, why did we do that? They were pretty tough last year.'"

Try pretty invincible for much of the way. After a fourth-place finish at Daytona, Skinner rattled off three straight wins. He would continue to post top-eight finishes the next eight races, then winning again in race No. 13 at Kentucky. It was a season of a number of crazy superlatives, from the wins and poles to leading laps in a remarkable 24 of 25 races.

"If we have half the year we had last season, I can't complain," Skinner said. "We're going to try to just repeat what we did last year, except just do it a little tiny bit better."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.


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Wide-Open Qualifying In '08?

Mike Skinner


Mike Skinner's record of 11 poles set last year can be marked in ink. It's unlikely anyone in the truck series will make a run at that anytime soon, as horsepower-reducing engine modifications put in place by NASCAR for 2008 likely will give more drivers an opportunity to grab the newly named Keystone Pole Award.

"Now, instead of three or four guys holding [the throttle] wide open, three-quarters of the field will be able to hold it wide open," Skinner said. "I think it's taken a lot of the driver out of it, and it might help some of the rookies. There will be a lot of people that can do what I did -- in the past I've been able to suck it up for two laps and get a lot of poles. [Now] it's not going to be a big challenge at a lot of these places."

There also likely won't be any challenging the big boys for king of the speed hill on a NASCAR weekend. At Dover, Bristol and the trucks' second race at Martinsville, the truck pole winner actually outran the fastest Cup car.

"Everybody knows in the big picture why the changes were made -- nobody can outqualify the Cup cars. That's the bottom line, that's the show," said Rick Ren, crew chief for defending champion Ron Hornaday. "You have grandstands full of people and they can look at a pylon in the infield that tells you how many mph somebody just ran, and when the trucks outqualify the Cup cars, that's not good for business for filling seats on Sunday."

Late Rides Secured For Daytona

Mike Bliss doesn't have full-time ride for this season, but the 2002 series champion does have one for Daytona. Bliss will drive the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet that will be driven by Donny Lia starting next week at California. Lia, 27, was the 2007 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, but does not have superspeedway clearance from NASCAR to race a truck.

Bliss' history in the truck series dates to its debut race in Phoenix in 1995. P.J. Jones also raced that day, and he'll be driving Friday night at Daytona. Jones, a veteran of open-wheel and stock-car racing and the son of 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones, will drive the No. 63 MB Motorsports Ford.

A total of 37 trucks were on the preliminary entry list for the Chevy Silverado 250.