Scott Faces Pivotal Final Weekend
By DAVE MOODY
For defending Thunder Road Late Model champion Phil Scott, the next 72 hours will be the difference between making history and being history.
With just two point-counting races remaining in the 2003 Thunder Road Late Model championship season -- tonight’s Power Shift On Line Thursday night finale, and Saturday’s “Wilson Motorcar 50” - the Sailing Senator from Washington County is poised to do what only one man has done before; claim his fourth lead-division “King of the Road” title.
At present, Chuck Beede stands alone on the list of Thunder Road “four-peaters,” with championships in 1985, 1992, 1993, and 1994. Scott comes into tonight’s race with a 30-point advantage (885-855) over 2000 Thunder Road champion Tracie Bellerose, and needs only to keep the Gorham, NH speedster in sight for another three days to claim his place in the record books. Complicating that process is Scott’s planned Saturday night debut in NASCAR’s Grand National Division, Busch North Series, when he steers Bob Nolet’s Irving Oil Monte Carlo in the “True Value 150” at Thunder Road.
Pulling double duty on his home turf seemed like a great idea six months ago, but now, racing twice in the same night - in two dramatically different racecars - could become enough of a distraction for Bellerose to turn the tide in her favor. While acknowledging the risk, Scott said his main focus will be on the night’s 50-lap Late Model race.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for me to race a Busch North car on my home track,” he said. “But my heart will absolutely be in the Late Model. We’ve come too far this season to drop the ball now, and I know that if we stumble even a little bit, Tracie will be right there. The Busch North deal will be secondary Saturday. It has to be. I don’t want to get this close (to a fourth championship), only to screw it up.”
After testing his Busch North mount earlier this season at Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, Scott realizes he’ll have a “steep learning curve” to deal with Saturday. “It’s a totally different kind of racecar,” he said. “The handling is different, the horsepower is different, the two cars really could not be more dissimilar. The only thing that makes me feel a little confident is that we’ll be running at Thunder Road. Obviously, I know a little bit about how to get around that track, and hopefully, that will give me a little advantage.”
The Washington County Senator said his goals for the Busch North portion of Saturday’s program are simply to qualify for the race.
“If we can time-trial our way into the show, I’ll be happy,” he said. “A top-10 finish at the end of the night would be like a win for me. But again, my main focus has to be on the 50-lap Late Model race. That’s the one that really matters.”
Scott’s 2003 championship drive has been built on consistency. While he has carried the checkered flag around the Barre highbanks only once, the Montpelier driver has amassed eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 12 starts; incredible statistics for a driver who rarely (if ever) starts better than twelfth in a 50-lap race. By contrast, Bellerose has won three Thunder Road features - and thus owns the tiebreaker, should the two end the season in a tie - but has been unable to match Scott’s machine-like consistency.
Just 72 hours from now, the verdict will be in. Scott will either be celebrating a fourth Thunder Road title, or lamenting a lost opportunity to make history. Either way, it should be interesting.
Kevin Lepage returns to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this weekend, at the wheel of the Morgan-McClure Kodak Pontiac. Lepage drove for the Abingdon, Virginia-based team for 21 races in 2001. He has 131 Winston Cup starts in his career, with two top-fives, eight top-10s and one Bud Pole. He has been especially successful at Darlington over the years, with three top-10 finishes in seven starts, including a fifth-place showing in the 1999 Southern 500.
“I’m really excited to have this opportunity,” said the Shelburne native Tuesday. “It’s humbling sitting at home watching everyone else race. Getting an opportunity to be a part of the final Labor Day weekend Southern 500 is pretty special.”
Lepage said his new deal is for one race only, but admitted there has been “some talk about the future. For now, though, my main goal is to get the Kodak Pontiac back up at the front of the pack. I’ve got a good track record at Darlington, and looking at their cars, the equipment is far superior to when I was here last.
“The team has received me with open arms,” he said. “They’re really looking forward to this weekend, and so am I.”
Scott Dragon saw both a fourth-place finish and his ACT Dodge Tour point lead disappear Saturday night, after officials discovered an illegal right-front shock absorber on his car at White Mountain Motorsports Park. Dragon was penalized all points and prize money earned at WMMP, along with an additional 150 championship points, dropping him from first to 11th in the standings. He and his crewchief, Brock Rouse, were also fined $100 apiece for verbally abusing ACT officials in the tech line.
ACT rules mandate shock absorbers “not to exceed $160 original manufacturer’s suggested retail price,” and in an exclusive SpeedReading interview this week, Dragon admitted that the part in question violated the rule. “The shock was definitely illegal,” he said. “It was an adjustable-rebound shock, and it shouldn’t have been on the car. It got put on by mistake.”
The South Hero driver insisted, however, that the offending part made no difference in his fourth-place drive, which saw him race from the back of the pack after an early rough-riding penalty.
“An adjustable-rebound shock does no good on the right-front,” he said. “If it had been on the left-rear, that’s an advantage. But not on the right-front. Unfortunately, there’s no appealing it. When you’re dealing with ACT, you’re dealing with the almighty Tom Curley. It’s his playground, and he does what he wants.
“I think the penalty was too harsh, but there’s nothing we can do about it now,” Dragon said. “We’re out of the championship chase. All we can do is come back next week and prove to everyone that (the shock) made no difference. We can win without it.”
Defending “True Value 150” champion Mike Olsen returns to Thunder Road Saturday with momentum on his side. Two weeks ago, he drove Ron Bevins’ Subway Ford Taurus to his first career Thunder Road Late Model win. Saturday night, he topped the Busch North Series at Beech Ridge, his first BNS win since last year’s Thunder Road score.
Like Scott, Olsen said a full summer of wheeling ACT Late Models around the Barre highbanks won’t count for much when the Busch North machines roll out, but added that momentum is momentum, no matter where it comes from.
“We had a terrible start to the season, but things have been turning around lately,” said Olsen, the grandson of Thunder Road living legend Stub Fadden. “We finally got a Late Model win at Thunder Road, and we got to Busch North Victory Lane at Beech Ridge last week, so I guess you could say we’re on a bit of a roll right now.”
Olsen’s Busch North schedule will prevent him from taking part in the 40th Annual “New England Dodge Dealers Milk Bowl” on Saturday and Sunday, September 27/28. He’s got a solid replacement in mind, however, if he can get his car owner and sponsor to sign-off on the deal.
“Stubby (Fadden) would love to run the Milk Bowl, and I think he’d do a hell of a job,” said Olsen this week. “I’m trying to sell it to Ron Bevins and Dave Parker, but they’re not quite there yet.”
The “Racing Great-Grandfather” last climbed behind the wheel in the 2001 “True Value 150,” driving a team car out of Olsen’s Little Trees stable to a twelfth-place finish.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Saturday’s “Wilson Motorcar 50” is the final point-counting race for Thunder Road’s Late Model teams, since the Milk Bowl awards point only for the ACT New England Dodge Tour. Thunder Road’s Tiger Sportsman, Street Stock and Junkyard Warrior classes will determine their champions on Milk Bowl weekend.
…NASCAR President Mike Helton is declining to comment on rumors that he will leave his post at the end of the season to take over Dale Earnhardt Inc. Sources close to the situation say Helton and Teresa Earnhardt have reached an agreement on the move, which will make Helton President and part-owner of DEI. An announcement is expected in December, after the NASCAR season is completed.
…The ACT Dodge Tour will return to Seekonk Speedway in Seekonk, Massachusetts on Saturday, September 20 to complete the “New England Dodge Dealers 100,” stopped after 42 laps earlier this month. The event will run as part of the Cement Palace’s final regular season event, and sets up a doubleheader weekend for the Tour troops. ACT is will an appearance at the Lee USA Speedway in Lee, New Hampshire the following day, September 21.
…Three-time champion Jack Sprague will return to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series next season, driving a second entry out of the Xpress Motorsports stable. Sprague, who parted company with the Haas CNC Racing Winston Cup team in July, won the Truck Series title in 1997, 1999 and 2001. Xpress Motorsports claimed the crown in 2002 with Mike Bliss at the wheel, and currently leads the 2003 NCTS point standings with driver Travis Kvapil.
…Jason Leffler needs to make a decision soon on where his racing career is headed. Leffler’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series owner, Jim Smith, said this week that if Leffler wants to keep his job, he can not continue to drive the Haas-CNC Racing Winston Cup Pontiac.
“We've sent him a contract,” said Smith. “The next move is his.” Smith also implied that if Leffler chooses to leave, he’ll have to buy-out the remainder of his contract. Leffler has driven the Netzero-sponsored Winston Cup car three times this season, and has reportedly agreed to eight more starts.
…Ricky Craven, whose single-car team has struggled in recent weeks, may soon be able to join the ranks of multi-car teams. Craven’s car owner, Cal Wells, is talking seriously again about added a second entry to his stable, if adequate sponsorship can be found.
…The weekly racing wars begin tonight at Thunder Road, with “Power Shift On Line Night,” headlined by a 100-lap main event for the Flying Tiger-Sportsmen, plus Late Models, Street Stocks and Junkyard Warriors, with a special early start time of 6 p.m.
Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway runs a special Friday night event this week, as Clifford Concrete hosts a full card of racing, plus a four and eight-cylinder Enduros. Action starts at 6:30.
NASCAR’s Grand National Division, Busch North Series makes its annual pilgrimage to Barre’s Thunder Road Saturday night for the “True Value 150.” The Thunder Road Late Model, Tiger-Sportsman and Street Stock divisions will also be on the docket, with post time is set for 5 p.m. At White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, action resumes with the Super Streets and the Strictly Mini's running double features, plus the Kid's Trucks. The first green flag waves at 6 p.m.
The Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway asphalt track rolls out double features in the Pro Stock and Mini Stock divisions, presented by Miller Auto Group and Mansur & Sons Trucking and Excavating. Showtime is 6:00 p.m. The Canaan dirt track is also in action Saturday night, with the “Shawn Towne Memorial” sponsored by R & K Heating. The 358 Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro Streets, and Fast Fours will be on hand, plus the New England Sprint Cars and a Sportsman Coupes Mechanic race. Action starts at 6:30.
At Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, track champions in all divisions will be crowned Sunday night when the Bowl holds its final points race of the season. Double points will be on the line, with the Modifieds running a 100-lap feature. Racing will begin at 7 p.m.