Busch North Dominates At Irwindale
By DAVE MOODY
The first annual “Toyota All Star Showdown” is in the record books, after a historic weekend of racing at California’s Irwindale Speedway that saw the host Winston West Series teams thoroughly upstaged by the visiting Busch North Series drivers.
On Wednesday, Mike Stefanik’s Burnham Boilers team got things rolling for the Busch North troops, winning a pitstop contest featuring the top three crews from both the Winston West and Busch North Series’. Both of Friday’s 50-lap qualifying races were won by Busch North drivers - Joey McCarthy and defending series champion Andy Santerre -- and the 15 Busch North Series claimed an easy win in Saturday’s 100-lap “team race” segment, good for an additional $2,000 apiece.
While Winston West Series competitor Austin Cameron claimed an emotional victory in Saturday’s final 25-lap segment, the Busch North Series dominated that event as well, claiming eight of the top-10 positions overall. Santerre finished a close second, followed by Bryon Chew in fourth and Mike Stefanik fifth. Eddie MacDonald finished sixth, Joey McCarthy was seventh, with Rookie of the Year Ryan Moore, Kelly Moore, and Williston’s Brian Hoar completing the top 10.
Cameron, a native of El Cajon, Calif., missed four races this season while undergoing cancer treatment. His performance after returning to the track was enough to clinch the 15th (and final) Winston West invitation to the Toyota All-Star Showdown, and his performance was one of the few bright spots for the host Winston West Series. Despite racing on home turf, the western drivers were badly outclassed almost from the outset. They recorded the top six times in the first practice round of the weekend, but less than an hour later, were reduced to chasing their Busch North brethren; mostly from a distance.
Bill Elliott claimed a popular win in Sunday’s “Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 500” at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, his first win of the 2004 NASCAR Winston Cup season. But the biggest winner Sunday was Matt Kenseth, who grabbed the biggest prize of them all -- the NASCAR Winston Cup championship - with a fourth-place finish. Kenseth’s championship -- the first for team owner Jack Roush - came in typical fashion. He started near the back, stayed out of trouble all day, then mounted a late charge that earned him the title with a race still to go.
With Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway still to be run, Kenseth leads Jimmie Johnson by an insurmountable 226 points. The battle for second place remains tight, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., stands just 38 points behind Johnson.
Kenseth is the 26th driver to win the Winston Cup championship, the first since Benny Parsons in 1973 to claim the title with only one race win. He will also be the final driver to hold the Winston Cup title, when Nextel assumes sponsorship of NASCAR's premier series at Daytona next February.
"I've been trying hard not to think about it,” admitted Kenseth Sunday. “I've had a lot of stuff bottled up inside for a couple months. Even though everybody said I was a shoo-in these last two races, I don't count on it until it's over and official.
Kenseth said that beneath his iceman demeanor, the pressure of the late-season title chase had taken its toll on him.
"There's a feeling you get in your stomach when you're leading a race and it's getting toward the end and you look in your mirror and see a car behind you," Kenseth said. "You kind of get this empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, and I've had that for about three months. I feel like I've been leading the race with 20 laps to go for three months."
"In the middle of the year, I read a lot of columns (talking about how) nobody's ever had this big a lead and blown it," said Kenseth. "Those things actually add pressure, because I didn't want to be the guy that goes in the record book (for having) that big a lead and blowing it.
"I feel a lot lighter today. I feel like the world's been lifted off my shoulders."
Consistency was the key to Kenseth’s championship season. After a 20th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth finished third at Rockingham, before winning his only race of the season a week later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A fourth-place finish in week four at Atlanta gave him the points lead for the first time, and from there on, no one was able to pull him from the top of the mountain. Kenseth led Gordon by 165 points at the halfway point of the season, and even a brief run of bad luck in the late going was not enough to jeopardize his chances.
"I'm just so thankful to have this opportunity,” said the newly crowned champion. “There are so many great drivers that never get the chance to do this. I've been lucky to be with a top-notch team right from my rookie year, to be in equipment that was capable of winning races, and having an owner like Jack that will get us anything we want,and four really great teammates to help us.
Negotiations are underway for a number of American-Canadian Tour drivers to start their 2004 season a little early. Promoters of the Hardeeville Motor Speedway in Hardeeville, S.C., have proposed a special event called the “Blue/Gray Series” for the weekend of February 7-8, pitting the visiting ACT Dodge Tour stars against the local Hardeeville Late Model drivers. Promoter Dennis Beach has already received verbal commitments from 14-16 of his teams, and hopes to attract at least 10 yankee invaders to his track, a D-shaped, third-mile oval with 14-degree banking in the corners.
ACT President Tom Curley served as a consultant during the track’s design and construction, and Beach was an interested observer at Thunder Road earlier this summer. A total of 22 ACT drivers have been invited to take part in the event, which reportedly boasts a $5,000-to-win purse, with all starters receiving a minimum of $1,000. Curley said this week that there is still some negotiating to be done before the “Blue/Gray Series” comes to pass, however.
“The only way we’ll do it is if the last-place finisher makes enough money to break even,” he said. “That way, everyone gets to enjoy a little South Carolina sunshine and get an early start on Daytona Speedweek, without risking their seasons here at home,” said Curley.
Two-time NASCAR Busch North Series champion Andy Santerre may be moving up. Just days after leading a dominant Busch North effort at the inaugural Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale, Santerre traveled to Nashville, Tennessee this week, reportedly to talk to NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series owner Bobby Hamilton about a spot on Hamilton’s three-truck team in 2004.
Hamilton drove one of his own entries this season, and stands sixth in points coming into tomorrow’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with one win and nine top-five finishes in 24 starts. Team drivers Chad Chaffin and Bill Lester have been less impressive, however. Chaffin has only two top-five finishes - including a season-best third-place showing at Michigan in July - en route to a distant tenth-place showing in points, while Lester has just one top-10 finish in 52 career starts with Bobby Hamilton Racing. He ranks 13th in NCTS points.
Veteran Kenny Schrader will be the new driver of Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevrolet in 2004. Steve Park will not return next season, and Childress has delayed an announcement for nearly a month. Early speculation centered around Ward Burton and Jeremy Mayfield, but AOL reportedly vetoed Burton, and Mayfield recently re-signed with Evernham Motorsports.
Schrader will leave the BAM Racing team to take his new position with Childress. BAM has struggled to find major sponsorship this season, and has nothing in place for 2004. Team owner Beth Ann Morgenthau has said the team may not race a full schedule next season if a new backer cannot be found, prompting Schrader to look for a new position with more job security.
Expect an announcement as soon as this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Ricky Craven’s nightmare late season continued last weekend at Rockingham. The Newbergh, Maine native ran among the top-10 for much of the day, before being swept-up by Ricky Rudd’s spinning car in the late going. Severe damage forced him to retire his Tide Pontiac with a disappointing 39th place finish.
…Shelburne’s Kevin Lepage also experienced a rough weekend in the Kodak Perfect Touch Pontiac, losing a motor early in the day en route to a 42nd place showing.
…New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway remains on the auction block, despite earlier reports that discussions were underway between owner/promoter C.J. Robinson and a potential buyer. A current photo listing in a New Hampshire real estate publication lists the Groveton oval --- which includes a 40-acre plot of land, a 3,000 seat grandstand, and all associated outbuildings -- for an asking price of $500,000. Robinson has owned the quarter-mile Granite State oval for 19 years, but has never been able to expand the track’s fan and competitor base.
…The Canaan Association of Racers for Racers (CARR) released its 2004 rulebook for the Pro Stock, Late Model, Super Street, and Mini Stock divisions this week, and according to CARR Operations Manager Bob Stanhope, “there are a few changes in each division. We have made some adjustments based on the feedback of the racers, and the competition on the track during this past season.”
Rules are available online at the CARR website --
www.racers4racers.com -- or by calling (603) 542-2406. CARR will crown its
inaugural champions Saturday night at the Canaan Fair Speedway function hall.
…Old habits die hard. At Sunday’s Rockingham driver’s meeting at, NASCAR’s David Hoots called the roll in customary fashion, by car number. When he got to car number 22, driver Ward Burton did as he’s done for many years, answering, “here!” Unfortunately, Burton isn't the driver of the # 22 anymore, having parted company with longtime car owner Bill Davis three weeks ago.