Travis Braden expected some success when he took over the driver’s seat for Gary Estes’ Late Model. But the consistency in which the 17-year-old from Wheeling, W.Va., has reached Victory Lane has caused a perpetual re-evaluation of the team’s goals.
It started out chasing a couple of wins and maybe the rookie title at Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway. Then it was track championship. Then they added Kil-Kare Speedway in Xenia, Ohio, to their racing schedule and started thinking state championship.
After a weekend sweep of Kil-Kare and Columbus, Braden is thinking even bigger.
He moved to 11th in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings and furthered his lead in the national Rookie of the Year presented by Jostens standings.
“I expected to get a couple of wins, but we’re definitely further ahead than I planned,” said Braden. ““I knew Gary was awesome, but I just can’t say enough about how hard he works and how hard the whole team works.”
Braden’s accomplishments are indicative of the young talent racing in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Of the seven rookies ranked in the top 50 in the national standings, six are 17 and under.
Keith Rocco, 26, of Wallingford, Conn., continues to lead the championship standings as he goes for his second straight title. Rocco picked up his 20th win of the season and fifth in a row at Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl Saturday. He has 27 top fives and 32 top 10s in 35 starts at Waterford, Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway, Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway and Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H.
Behind him, a pair of 23-year-olds – Lee Pulliam and CE Falk III – had big weekends.
With his home track of Motor Mile in Radford, Va., having the night off, Pulliam traveled to Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C., and picked up the victory to move up to second in points.
And Falk defended his home turf of Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va., against three-time national champion Philip Morris, and came away with a pair of Late Model victories.
Rocco has 744 points, followed by Pulliam with 722, Morris with 720 and Falk with 697.
Bill Leighton Jr. moved up to fifth with 595. Leighton has five wins racing in the dirt Late Model divisions at Adams County Speedway in Corning, Iowa, I-80 Speedway in Omaha, Neb., and Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Neb.
A driver’s best 18 results through Sept. 18 are counted toward their state and national points totals, and the champions are decided on overall points total. Once a driver reaches 18 starts, their total increases incrementally as they replace some poorer runs with better results.
First-year Division I license holders are eligible to run for U.S. state and Canadian provincial rookie honors as well as the national Rookie of the Year award.
Braden is battling at Columbus and Kil-Kare with veteran Donald Mahaffey and 17-year-old rookie Brandon Oakley. Oakley, from Beaver Creek, Ohio, has four wins and is second in the national rookie standings. He is 25th overall, just ahead of Ronald Proctor. Proctor races at Devil’s Bowl in West Haven, Vt., and Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, N.Y. – a pair of tracks in their first year with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
Austin McDaniel, who like Braden got his start in quarter-midgets and Legends cars before moving to stock cars, rolled to his second Late Model win in three weeks at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton, N.C. The 17-year-old from Harrisburg, N.C., is second in track points, fifth in North Carolina and 34th overall.
After getting some early mechanical issues worked out on the car, McDaniel has steadily moved up. He reeled off four straight third-place finishes before finally breaking through on July 16. The victory was especially sweet as it came on the night his car sponsor was sponsoring the event. He was runner-up the following week before returning to Victory Lane Saturday.
“It’s been a progression,” McDaniel said. “Even before we started winning, we were running well. We started qualifying better.
“We almost expected to do this good, but we put a lot of hard work into it. Recently it’s been paying off and hopefully we can keep it that way.”
Zac Hausler, 16, leads all rookies with 13 wins racing in the Modified divisions at Houston Motorsports Park and Thunderhill Raceway in Kyle, Texas. Dylan Lupton, 17, and Taylor Miinch, 16, are both in the top 50 of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings racing as rookies racing in the Late Model division at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, Calif.
In addition to Braden, Proctor and Hausler, two other rookie drivers – Jeff Pohlman (Magic Valley/Idaho), Shawn Natenstedt (Reno-Fernley/Nevada) – lead their overall state standings.
Under the points structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner receives two points for every car in the event up to 20 cars. Second place receives two fewer points, and so on through the field.
Race winners receive an additional five bonus points. For example, if 20 cars are in the field, the winner receives 45 points, second place 38 and third, 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 35 points, second 28 and third, 26.
Track, state and provincial champions and the top-three finishers in the national standings earn invitations to the 2011 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet at the Charlotte Convention Center at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday, Dec. 9.
National Top 500 NASCAR Points Leaders