He might not have had facial hair like Keith Hernandez or Tom Selleck, but Mike Skinner had quite the mustache in his prime. A few years before Jimmie Johnson piloted the blue Lowe’s Chevrolet, it was Skinner that expanded the home improvement giant’s interest in the world of NASCAR with Richard Childress Racing.
The Camping World Truck Series hasn’t since seen a driver like Skinner was in the first two seasons of the division. His dominance in the black No. 3 Chevrolet reminded many of Dale Earnhardt; after all, he was racing a truck that was designed just like Earnhardt’s racecar. Seeing the California native break through in the sport using its Truck Series division at its crisp beginning was remarkable, a path drivers could only hope to follow.
Winning 16 of the first 44 Truck Series events, Skinner’s efforts were like no other. His RCR team was stacked with potential, including on its roster a guy by the name of Todd Berrier, who eventually became a Cup crew chief for 453 races and an Xfinity Series champion. With the help of team owner Richard Childress, the No. 3 team became the trendsetter in the sport’s third-tier division.
“Richard stacked the deck,” Skinner tells Frontstretch, looking back on his entrance into the series in the mid-1990s. “We had an amazing team, and the biggest hurdle that we had to learn was I was a short-track racer and they were trying to build everything like speedway stuff. We had a lot of issues about how I wanted everything lower and lighter like how the cars are today. I guess I was a little ahead of where we were. I knew how to make stuff better, faster, lighter and stronger.
“Once we started winning, it seemed like whatever I asked for they would give me. Once they started doing that, we started building the confidence around each other in both directions. If I was a little lost and they said I think we need to put a bigger sway bar in it and whether I agreed with it or not, we did it. We worked really tight as a team. We would’ve won a hell of a lot more races. There is a part of me that says – looking back at it – if I would’ve stayed in the Truck Series, I could’ve ran the numbers that would have been really hard to ever beat.”
As the wins kept on coming, RCR began to field a car in the Cup Series for Skinner in 1996. Running five races, he impressed the organization enough to field a second car alongside Earnhardt in ’97. In doing so, he became the seven-time champion’s first full-time teammate and the first since the passing of his best friend, Neil Bonnett, who was killed in a practice crash during Daytona Speedweeks in 1994.
But that is when things changed for the organization. A new era had begun because of Skinner, one that Earnhardt would have never imagined.
“One of the things was that Dale and I were nothing alike,” Skinner, the 1997 Cup Rookie of the Year, says. “Dale had this really brass, hard-ass, intimidator thing going on. But inside, he was a really great guy. Toward the end, it was really sad because he actually started to like me a little bit. We learned from each other, we got along and we would do more things together than in the first couple of years. We actually started working as a team.”
In Skinner’s third season with the Cup program, he began to have success, earning five top fives and 14 top 10s in 1999. The No. 31 Chevrolet had started to click with veteran crew chief Larry McReynolds at the helm instead of Kevin Hamlin, Skinner’s crew chief for his first two seasons. With Hamlin moving over to the No. 3 team, the swap enabled RCR to work closer than ever before. Sharing information was key as the two teams adjusted to the switch. Skinner, in fact has a clear memory of the day it all changed.
“I remember the turning point for Dale and I was when we were at Texas,” Skinner said. “The No. 31 car was practicing and I was on top of the board and he was like 43rd. He asked me if I could drive the No. 3 car. The first lap on the board, I put it third on the sheet. He came over and said ‘you embarrassed the shit out of me.’ That was the first time he saw that I could help him with something. That’s when Dale Earnhardt changed his whole [line of thinking] about the teammate thing.
“All of a sudden, we needed to work as a team; not so much on the racetrack, but off the racetrack, during practices and feedback from one another. It started working like Richard always wanted it to work. A lot of positive things started to happen. Unfortunately, we lost him the very first race in the following year. I think that was probably one of the biggest turning points in my career other than me trying to drive while I was hurt, and it was losing Dale. If Dale would have stayed, I probably still would have been there.”
However, Earnhardt’s teaching ability couldn’t help Skinner overcome bad luck time and time again. Broken parts and failed strategy calls plagued him throughout his time with one of the sport’s most successful teams. His luck deteriorated, and losing Earnhardt on a last-lap crash during the Daytona 500 in 2001 was just the unfortunate start of his decay in NASCAR’s premier series.
“Not a lot of people realize this, but myself and Ken Schrader were the first people to walk up and see him in the car,” said Skinner. “We knew immediately it wasn’t good, but we couldn’t say anything. My very thought that day, and it was the very first time I had worn a head-and-neck restraint, and my only thought was, ‘damn it.’ I wish he had it on instead of me today. Would that have saved his life? I don’t know. I think he would have had a hell of a lot better chance if he had been wearing a head-and-neck restraint.”
Later that season, Skinner had a tragedy of his own. During the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, he was injured in a crash that gave him a concussion, broken ankle and torn ACL. Being the fighter that he is, he came back fives races later at Michigan after Robby Gordon had taken over the No. 31 ride.
However, the suffering was immense for Skinner, causing him to go for surgery to repair his ACL. Gordon would become the substitute driver once again, and the man who had seen it all at RCR was out of a job for the 2002 season.
“I had six or seven not-minor concussions, but pretty major concussions,” Skinner recalls. “I had a vertebrate sore in my neck a couple of times, broke my scapula a few times, had a punctured lung, elbow, arm, knees, ankles and if you name it, I’ve had it broken or torn. I broke both my shoulders and both biceps. I just got beat up so bad before we started to use the HANS device and having the walls a little softer. I was just very lucky. I was lucky that I got to keep going as long as I did. It was definitely one of those things where it was time for me to hang it up because like the doctors said, they didn’t know if you can take two more or one more hit for you to might not ever be normal again.”
Skinner had each of his 10 career top fives, 37 of his 39 top 10s, five of his six poles and his lone non-points victories in Cup during his 123-race tenure with RCR. Winning at Japan for two exhibition races in the late ’90s was one of Skinner’s proudest moments; it was part of a NASCAR Asian experiment where roughly half the Cup stars moonlighted for a race in the offseason overseas.
In the year following his stint with RCR, Skinner found himself racing for Morgan-McClure Motorsports, piloting the No. 4 car. But he stated numerous times that he rushed back, which was one of the few things he wishes he could go back and change.
“The biggest thing that tarnished my career was me,” he explains. “When I got hurt, I tried to drive that racecar at a Sprint Cup level while I was hurt. I wasn’t only physically hurt, I was mentally hurt. Nobody has ever been able to do it. I was probably the 80th guy to try to do it and probably the 80th guy that failed at it. You can’t do it at the top level. You can’t ask a quarterback to go out there and throw the football with a broken arm. When you are physically beat up, you have no chance to be competitive. I tried to do that, and if I had to do it all over again, I would’ve stepped out of the car like Kyle Busch instead of coming back earlier. He made sure he was 100% before he came back in there.”
Eventually, Skinner lost his ride with the No. 4 team after a year and a half. He spent the second half of the 2003 season for MBV Motorsports in the No. 01 U.S. Army car for 11 events. Following the 2003 season, it was time for him to return home.
Running only the Daytona 500 in 2004 for RCR, his full-time career in the Cup Series was completed. 2011 was the only time he raced more than 20 events in a season after that, primarily as a start-and-park driver for Germain Racing.
Fortunately for him, Skinner’s career was revived in the Truck Series with Bill Davis Racing. From 2005 until ’09, he was a title contender in the series that made him well-known throughout the NASCAR community. Winning 12 races during that span, he finished second in the standings in 2007, narrowly losing the title to Ron Hornaday Jr.
During this time, Skinner also became a major factor for struggling teams in the Cup Series. He became an instructor, a mentor and a man that teams to went to when they were struggling to survive in NASCAR. Most notably, he replaced AJ Allmendinger for Red Bull Racing early in the ’08 season, creating a turnaround for one of the sport’s young drivers to come over from another form of racing.
“They were getting to where they couldn’t make races, and they had young drivers that didn’t have Sprint Cup experience,” Skinner says. “The Austrians thought that was the new way for NASCAR, and that was what they needed to do and it really wasn’t. [GM] Jay Frye called me and said we want you to drive the car for five races, test with AJ and do what you can to get this kid on track. All of that went extremely well. We made all of the races. When AJ got back in the car, he started making races and running well and did a great job. That was great, and I did the same thing at Michael Waltrip Racing with Michael McDowell. They weren’t making races and needed some help. It was a neat part of my life, and it opened up a whole new thing for me.”
After hanging up his helmet in ’12, Skinner has been busy running a business with his two sons, Jamie and Dustin. The three help develop young drivers in late models along with racers eager to learn how to get around road courses. With his endeavors in racing, he moved over to the radio side of the sport with his wife Angie. The two have their own show on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio called the Skinner Round-Up.
As life continues for Skinner after racing, he hasn’t come close to forgetting how he became successful. The West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame inductee is eager to see if his name will one day be called for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Even if he doesn’t, just being part of the discussion is satisfying enough for the former champion.
“I think that would be awesome. We still have a few records that Kyle Busch hasn’t been able to touch yet,” he explains. “To be out of the trucks as long as I have and to still have some pole records and lap leader things, I don’t have any regrets. When Kyle was winning every week was when I got in a crappy ride. When I was racing with Bill Davis with Jeff Hensley as my crew chief and Johnny Benson as my teammate, we beat Kyle as much as he beat us.”
Skinner can’t go back and change the past to make his track record that much better. But those Truck Series accomplishments for Skinner along with those exhibition Cup victories (see one below) will live on in NASCAR history forever.