A thrilling, side-by-side duel seemingly for the win by two cagy veterans. A youngster who came out of nowhere to blow by both veterans late and claim an emotional first victory. A championship determined by a controversial mid-race crash. A race determined by tire strategy because of a famous Southern track that’s busy chewing up tires when it’s not busy chewing up cars.
These were the scenes from Saturday’s 150-lap CARS Pro Cup Series season finale at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina. Those scenes were also the norm for the Pro Cup tour, the types of storylines race in and race out that rocketed Pro Cup to the top of the short track world under the USAR banner. Widespread speculation has built over the last month that this was going to be the final race in the history of Pro Cup, a sentiment that lingered heavily over the garage on race day. But regardless of whether Saturday was truly the curtain-closer on a great series or just the last event of a back-and-forth 2011 season, Pro Cup went out on a high note as Bryan Silas won the race and Jeff Agnew won the title.
Agnew entered the race as the series’ points leader, but his nine-point margin over Brad Rogers and thirty-four-point cushion over Caleb Holman was by no means safe. Rogers immediately put the pressure on in qualifying, turning in a track record lap of 23.841 seconds that obliterated the previous series track record and then proceeding to lead the first seventy-two circuits.
Pit strategy shuffled Rogers back in the pack during a mid-race restart and disaster soon found him. Ryan Heavner made a gutsy three-wide pass attempt on Rogers and Blake Jones entering turn one that didn’t work out well for either Rogers or Jones. Both cars sustained heavy damage. A clearly frustrated Rogers stormed out of his car and let his displeasure be known on pit road.
“I don’t really know what happened. The 77 [Heavner] had fresh tires and, yeah, you feel like Superman but it was three-wide . I backed out early and it just … just closed up on me. I don’t know,” Rogers said, adding an extra “I don’t know” as if to himself, explaining the unexpected end of what had been by far his best season on the tour.
With Rogers out of the race, Agnew merely had to keep near Holman to assure himself the title. He did so in a most thrilling way. The duo swapped the lead a few times down the front stretch and never seemed to be any further than a few carlengths from each other.
Right when Holman seemed to lose his handle, though, the black #11 of Bryan Silas suddenly entered the picture. Silas had made his final tire stop about 20 laps later than the front two and had charged from a quarter of a lap back with just 20 laps to go. He moved around Holman on lap 133 and followed suit on Agnew three laps later. From there, Silas merely motored away to a three and a half second victory over Agnew.
It was Silas’ first series victory in 20 series starts, but between the lengthy burnout and the victory lane bath, it was clear it meant even more than that to Silas.
“It’s been a while [since I won],” Silas said with a relieved smile in Victory Lane, proudly posing with his toddler Landon. “About five or six years. As I’ve been moving up in the levels, I needed to just make laps. The more race tracks I go to, the more I learn how to drive these things.
“The competition is still real tough, so when you beat Jeff Agnew, Brad Rogers and all these top running guys that battle it out every week, it’s definitely an honor. There’s eight to 12 good guys that can win any week.”
Silas’ win was doubly sweet after years of having track owner Andy Hillenburg and the Rockingham Speedway sponsorship support Silas’ racing efforts.
“It feels like home,” Silas said after spending a few moments reflecting in Victory Lane.
Agnew happily settled for second place in the race, winning the 2011 title by 39 points over Holman, who finished third. This is Agnew’s second series title but it might as well have been his first for all the time that has gone by. He won his first title in 1998, his rookie season, without winning a single race. Twenty race victories have since been accumulated for the quiet, but personable, Virginian, but each and every year since ’98, he’s come up just a little bit short in a championship battle.
In fact, halfway through 2010, there were whispers that Agnew was past his prime, mired in a nearly three-year winless streak. Agnew fought back, winning twice late in 2010 and putting together a streak of nine straight top-10’s (including four wins) to sit atop the heap this season.
“It’s been a long time,” Agnew said reflecting on his title drought. “To get this one, this far from the first one, it means a lot. We’ve all got older, all the guys on the team. It’s the same bunch of guys and we’ve been together so long.”
When asked about if he had raced any more conservatively near the end of the race with Rogers out, Agnew, ever the racer’s racer, made clear he had wanted the winner’s trophy too.
“We came down here and tried to win the race. Our two plans [he and Rogers’] were a little bit different. He wanted to go out there and lead all the laps and we wanted to be there at the end. I really, truly, hate that happened to him today.”
Series officials stated during the weekend that they are working “very hard” to ensure a 2012 schedule for Pro Cup. Series director Jack McNelly took over controlling interest in the series in July 2011 after previous ownership seemed ready to fold. At the very least, McNelly should be credited with getting the series to finish out its 2011 schedule after a bleak summer.
“This series has meant a lot to me,” Agnew said. “It’s the way I’ve made my living for the last 14 years. I’ve met a lot of really good people and I feel like that Jack is going to go onto the future with this deal.”