DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — – Short-track racing is built upon good, old fashion neighborhood rivalries, and championships are measured by the contenders that are overcome.
Even as Philip Morris eyes a third NASCAR Whelen All-American Series title in the last four years, the 44-year-old Ruckersville, Va., driver has a more immediate focus: a seventh Motor Mile Speedway Late Model division championship.
“It’s a feeling of completing what you’ve started, like finishing a building,” Morris said. “If we don’t win the track title, it’s going to be like the steeple is missing or you didn’t get the chimney all the way to the roof. For the crew, especially, that’s going to make or break us right there.
“In this series, you start out at the beginning of the season to win your track championship. Every week, that’s in your focus because the national championship is so far out. You’ve worked longer and harder on that. Obviously we want to bring that home to Ruckersville.”
Standing in his way is Frank Deiny Jr. The 36-year-old Ashland, Va., driver sits just two points behind Morris heading into the final race of the season at the .416-mile asphalt oval in Radford, Va. – a 150-lap Saturday night shootout. Because Morris holds the tiebreaker by virtue of more wins (6-2), Deiny needs to finish two spots ahead in the race.
“My goal this year was to beat Philip Morris wherever he was going to race,” Deiny said. “If you’re going to be in this business and are going to be successful in this business, you have to go beat up the biggest bully. Obviously, the national champion is going to be the biggest in the yard, so that’s who we went after.”
It’s likely that Morris will know the fate of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship by the time he takes the green flag Saturday night. With 835 points, he holds a 19-point advantage over second-place Keith Rocco of Wallingford, Conn.
Rocco made up some ground this past weekend. While Morris wrecked out of his race at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, Rocco finished first and fourth in twin 25-lap SK Modified features at the Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl.
Rocco has three scheduled races remaining: Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway Thursday, Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway Friday and Waterford Speedbowl Saturday. He would need to win at least one, with a second and third in the other two to tie Morris – if all three events have the maximum 23-car fields.
Bill Leighton of Omaha, Neb., and Nick Joanides of Woodland Hills, Calif., are tied for third with 803.
Leighton wrapped up the dirt Late Model championship at I-80 Speedway in Omaha with a seventh-place run Sunday in the track’s final points race. He has one race remaining at Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Neb., and can wrap up the track championship there.
Joanides has twin Super Late Model features Saturday at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.).
Neither Leighton nor Joanides can match Morris’ total if they only run their scheduled races.
A driver’s best 18 results are counted toward their state and national points totals.
Steve Robblee of Dorchester, Ontario, Canada, was first and second in twin features on the final NASCAR points race weekend at Delaware (Ontario) Speedway to jump from 14th to fifth with 769 points.
For Morris, who has already clinched a third straight NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Virginia state title, the 2009 season won’t feel complete without that Motor Mile title. For Deiny, it’s all about walking away with that trophy. He is third in Virginia state points and 17th nationally.
Overall, Morris has nine wins, 19 top fives and 22 top 10s in 27 starts racing at Motor Mile and South Boston. Six wins and 13 top fives have come at Motor Mile, where Deiny runs exclusively and has recorded two wins and 15 top fives in 17 races.
Deiny operates FDJ Motorsports, which fields several Late Model teams and a Limited Late Model program. Last week, driver Justin Johnson won the season-finale at South Boston – beating Morris in the process – to claim the team’s first track championship.
“All in all, it’s been a good year,” said Deiny. “To be running as good as we are, I’m feeling pretty good. We had to come up with what worked best. I feel like we gave him a head start. I think we’ve caught up and passed him. I think he’s been searching these past couple months, where we’ve been refining and getting better.”
Deiny is the last driver other than Morris to hold up the championship trophy at Motor Mile when he claimed the top prize in 2004. That year, he also won the Late Model title at Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C., and finished third in the Atlantic Region under the old NASCAR format. Deiny has also won track titles at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, N.C., (2001), South Boston (2002) and Old Dominion in Manassas, Va., (2006).
Since 2005, Deiny has focused more on competing in various regional touring series, and said he believes that if he had been running at Motor Mile full time he’s not sure Morris would have won those multiple national titles.
While Deiny is fueled by the desire to knock off the king of the mountain, Morris shrugs off such talk.
“I think Frank’s got a little rivalry going with me; I don’t really with him,” Morris said. “He’s just another competitor, another guy we’re going to have to beat, another guy who’s stepped up this year and run good. It’s always somebody.”
Morris points out that it’s been Rocco on the national stage this season.
In each of Morris’ previous two national championships, he’s won the final race of the season to claim the crown by just two points – or one track position. In 2006, he won at Caraway Speedway to edge veteran dirt Late Model driver Joe Kosiski of Omaha, Neb. Last year, Morris’ win in the finale at Motor Mile provided the final margin over dirt Late Model driver Brian Harris of Davenport, Iowa.
“There’s nothing quite like coming through in the end in the last race,” Morris said. “That’s why I look forward to it. It’s not easy. It takes a toll on your body and nerves. But the reward is so great, it’s worth it.”
One thing is for certain: it will all come down to Saturday night at Motor Mile.
“Hopefully me and Philip’s car are both running good,” Deiny said, “and we put on a good show for all the fans to see.”
The final points standings are scheduled to be released Wednesday, Sept. 16.
Track, state and province, and the national champion earn invitations to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet in Concord, N.C., Friday, Nov. 13. The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion also earns a secure spot in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, to be held at the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.) Jan. 29-30, 2010.
Under the points structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner will receive two points for every car in the event up to 23 cars. Second place will receive two fewer points, and so-on through the field. For example, if there are 23 cars, the winner receives 46 points, second gets 44 and third 42. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 30 points, second gets 28 and third 26. Race winners receive an additional five bonus points.
National Top 500 NASCAR Point Leaders
Pos Driver Track Starts Wins T-5 T-10 Points
1 Philip Morris Motor Mile Speedway 27 9 19 22 835
2 Keith Rocco Waterford Speedbowl 44 13 30 34 816
3 Nick Joanides Toyota Speedway At Irwindale 19 13 19 19 803
4 Bill Leighton, Jr I-80 Speedway 33 9 27 30 803
5 Steve Robblee Delaware Speedway 19 7 16 17 769
7 C E Falk, III Langley Speedway 24 11 20 21 751
8 Ron Sheridan Delaware Speedway 19 3 15 17 737
9 Marty Ward Greenville-Pickens Speedway 24 13 21 22 731
10 Matt Buller I-80 Speedway 32 6 15 29 726
12 Andy Eckrich Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway 39 7 32 36 711
13 Mike Wallace I-80 Speedway 32 2 21 29 710
14 Les Siebert I-80 Speedway 33 2 17 28 700
15 Woody Pitkat Thompson Intl Speedway 27 3 17 22 697
16 Andrew Kosiski I-80 Speedway 33 4 15 29 696
17 Frank Deiny, Jr Motor Mile Speedway 17 2 15 16 692
18 Rip Michels Toyota Speedway At Irwindale 19 2 16 18 686
19 Jeff Strunk Grandview Speedway 19 2 11 16 678
20 Roger Powell Greenville-Pickens Speedway 24 4 21 24 670
21 Tommy Lemons, Jr Motor Mile Speedway 27 3 10 15 663
22 Kevin Nuttleman Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway 19 2 10 18 660
23 Duane Howard Grandview Speedway 19 3 11 15 659
24 Nick Smith South Boston Speedway 26 5 13 17 655
25 Jeff Larson Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway 26 6 16 23 654