By Seth Sharp – Looking at the entry list for the inaugural Craftsman Truck Series race at Phoenix in 1995, it seemed as though it was an All-Star Race with many top drivers from many different series across the nation.
Those such as the Winston Cup and Busch Series, Winston West Series and American Speed Association. There were also a few former off-road racers entered in the event, as well as a former NFL Head Coach, Jerry Glanville.
It didn’t take long for the cream of the crop to rise to the top.
Richard Childress picked 37-year-old veteran @MSTheGunSlinger (Mike Skinner) to drive his No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, a truck identical to the iconic black No 3 Goodwrench car Dale Earnhardt had made famous. At the time, Skinner had competed in 17 combined Winston Cup and Busch Series events since making his debut in 1986.
In the season opening Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic at Phoenix Skinner qualified 16th. By the 33rd lap of the 80-lap event, he had made his way up front by passing @RonHornaday for the lead. For the next 29 laps Skinner paced the field before former Winston Cup Series Champion Terry Labonte took over. With only two laps to go, Skinner caught Labonte creating a side-by-side battle for the victory. Coming out of Turn 4 for the final time, Skinner slid in front of Labonte, etching his name in the history books as the first driver to win a Truck Series event.
Skinner then won the pole for the next four races, picking up a win and three top-five’s in the process. Heading into the sixth race of the season, he sat third in the point standings behind Hornaday and Butch Miller. But a fourth at Evergreen and back-to-back wins at I-70 and Louisville put Skinner in the point lead for the first time since winning the season opener at Phoenix.
Though he grabbed the pole at Bristol, Skinner started at the back of the field due to missing the drivers meeting and he struggled all race, ending up 20th. It was his last finish outside the top-10 the rest of the season. Over the final 11 races , Skinner picked up two wins, 10 top-five’s and 11 top-10’s in dominating fashion on his way to becoming the series’ first champion. He wound up 126 points ahead of runner-up Joe Ruttman.
The 1996 season saw a three-man battle for the championship, as Hornaday and Jack Sprague stepped up to the plate to challenge Skinner from vying to win back-to-back titles. The three drivers dominated the series, combining to win 17 of the 24 total races. Skinner led the way with eight, including three in a row early in the season at Tucson, Colorado and Topeka.
He sat second in points behind Hornaday with seven races remaining on the schedule as the trucks headed to Loudon, New Hampshire. Skinner picked up his fourth pole of the season but the race proved costly as his truck lost an engine early, thus resulting in a 27th place finish. Hornaday and Sprague meanwhile finished first and second, pushing Skinner 98 points further back in the standings.
Over the final six races, Skinner picked up two more wins, four top-fives and six top-10s. Except he still finished third in the point standings, 60 behind the series champion Hornaday. Skinner’s success led to a promotion to the Winston Cup Series by owner Richard Childress.
Overall in 44 races for Childress in the Truck Series, Skinner won 15 poles and 16 races to go along with 34 top-fives and 38 top-10s. He led an amazing 2,586 of the 7,179 laps, almost 40% of all laps completed in the series.
Skinner returned to the Truck Series full-time in 2004, adding to his resume that should easily land him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame someday. Between the 2004 and 2010 seasons, he picked up 12 more wins, while finishing in the top-five in points three times.
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