Together Philip Morris and Keith Rocco have combined for 44 victories. But for one driver, all those wins won’t be enough.
Heading into the final weekend for points to count toward NASCAR Whelen All-American Series title, the national title scenario is simple for the two past champions: Win.
Morris, the 46-year-old asphalt Late Model driver from Ruckersville, Va., holds a slim 11-point lead (789-778) in search of his fourth national championship. Defending champion Keith Rocco, 26, from Wallingford, Conn., will have three opportunities in his asphalt Modified to catch him.
The road to the title is this:
• Rocco is scheduled to run three times in Connecticut: Thursday at Thompson International Speedway, Friday at Stafford Motor Speedway, and Saturday at Waterford Speedbowl. Two wins with a maximum field of 20 cars, or three wins, one with a maximum field, one with at least 19 cars and one with at least 18 cars. If he does, he would end up with 790 points.
• To clinch the championship regardless of what Rocco does, Morris must win once with a minimum of 17 cars. That would give him 791 points. Even if Rocco were to win three times, Morris could still clinch outright with one win against a maximum field of 20 cars. In that case, the two would finish with identical 796s and Morris wins by virtue of the tiebreaker of most maximum-point wins (15-14).
The national title isn’t the only trophy up for grabs. In addition to track, U.S. state and Canadian provincial honors, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Rookie of the Year presented by Jostens will be decided between a pair of 17-year-olds.
Travis Braden, of Wheeling, W.V., wrapped up Late Model title at Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway leads with 593 points. Taylor Miinch, of El Cajon, Calif., has 525 points. Because Miinch has only raced 17 events at Toyota Speedway of Irwindale (Calif.), he needs at least a win and a third with a maximum field of 20 cars in Toyota’s twin Late Model features Saturday night to pass Braden.
“It’s better going in second and coming out first than going in first and coming out second,” Rocco said of the weekend. “We’ve been doing everything we can all summer. It’s tough being at the track three nights a week and in the shop four nights a week. It’s a lot of work and the crew goes through just as much as I do.”
Morris has been through this before.
In his first title season in 2006, he won on the final night at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C. – a track he hadn’t raced at all season – to clinch the title. In 2008, he won at his then-home track of Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., on the final weekend to take the points lead and then waited as weather washed out his nearest challenger’s last chances to race.
“I felt like we were destined for this year's national championship – even when we were behind – just because everything was falling into place,” Morris said. “We had a plan and we were implementing the plan. It felt really good all year.
“We're just going to ride it out and do the best we can this weekend. I'd be the first one to be surpised if we didn't finish up in first.”
Morris collected 19 wins and the track championship at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. He traveled to Motor Mile this past weekend, where Lee Pulliam had dominated all year. Morris was able to pull away for the victory No. 20 and move a step closer to title No. 4.
“It was one of those nights where it feels like everything is falling together,” Morris said. “One of those surreal moments that feel like national championship moments. Like Caraway in 2006. It was just a great moment for us.”
Morris has 20 wins, 23 top fives and 25 top 10s in 28 starts at South Boston, Motor Mile and Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va.
Rocco finished second at Stafford last Friday and second at Waterford Saturday, before winning Sunday’s race at Thompson. That left him with 24 wins, 38 top fives and 45 top 10s in 49 starts at those three tracks and Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H.
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.
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.
Fourteen of Morris’ wins have provided him the maximum 45 race-points. Rocco has 11 wins that were worth 45 points.
Morris said he and the team were still deciding whether to race the twin Late Model features at Langley Saturday night, or the final 150-lap event at Motor Mile. Morris finished ninth at Langley on July 30 and would have to beat track champion CE Falk III, who is fourth in the nation. At Motor Mile, he would still have to contend with Pulliam, who is third in the nation.
“To me, if you get two chances to race, you have two chances to win,” Morris said. “When we went to Langley last time, the car was very good, it was pacing CE pretty well. So we figure we had a pretty good chance to be compete for the win. We'd like to go back and build on that, even if it's for next year.”
The 23-year-old Pulliam, from Semora, N.C., has 755 points on the strength of his 17 wins, 27 top fives and 29 top 10s in 31 starts at Motor Mile, South Boston and Caraway. CE Falk III, also 23, from Virginia Beach, Va., has 11 wins in 23 starts for 713 points.
Brad Leighton, 28, from Omaha, Neb., is fifth at 694 points and 10 wins 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.
Ryan Preece (Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway, Stafford and Thompson) is sixth, followed by Woody Pitkat (Stafford, Waterford and Thompson), Brandon Davis (Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.)), Nate Monteith (New Kingsport (Tenn.) Speedway and Motor Mile) and Frank Deiny Jr. (Caraway, Motor Mile and South Boston).
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.
NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Top 25