By Jordan Kuehne
With the season rapidly coming to a head and drivers piecing together their final charges, it’s time to take a look back at the 2011 campaign that’s been at the historic Rockford Speedway as well as a brief glimpse at what could still transpire in the battle for the championship across the four feature divisions.
Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Models: While it’s been a topsy-turvy 64th consecutive year of racing action at the high banks for all divisions, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series has had its fair share of excitement each Saturday night dating back to late April. The premiere class every weekend, the Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Models have seen local boy Ryan Carlson assume command atop the standings since May as he looks to vault into the history books with a first career crown. Carlson has three feature wins on the season but his stranglehold on the top spot has loosened up in the past few weeks as two-time division champion Jerry Gille has once again began to mount a late season charge per his annual custom.
Gille has been at the head of the class at least in terms of reaching victory lane in 2011 – the venerable veteran has put together a make-or-break campaign that has seen him land in the winner’s circle four times but break down while leading no less than twice. With a little over a month remaining, Gille has sliced his deficit in the points standings to a mere 29 markers while ‘Driver X’, Jon Reynolds Jr. has also gained ground.
Reynolds Jr, still looking for his first title despite numerous close calls over the years, has closed to within 43 points behind the strength of a strong July that saw him grab two trophies including the ‘Star Spangled 76’ where he fended off Gille’s advances to reach victory lane. While Reynolds Jr. and Gille are within striking distance, they will likely need a costly Carlson slipup to erase the remaining gap en route to a championship. Defending champion Tim Sargent notched two big wins in May but faded over the middle of the year to eliminate any chance of a repeat crown as 2011 promises a new champion to emerge from the three-car pack of Carlson, Gille, or Reynolds Jr.
Budweiser American Short Trackers: Let it be known that 2011 is the Year of the Sparkmans – Between brothers George and BJ as well as young Rachel, the Sparkmans have amassed an impressive tally of six feature trophies while BJ paces George by a mere eight markers in the point standings. Rachel has put together a respectable season as well, sitting seventh in the standings with a win on Trailer Race Night in June to her credit.
While the Sparkmans have stole the show on most nights, parity has shown through via wins by Joe LaMarca, Brett McCoy, and Zach Rodriguez in the middle portion of the year. 2010 titlist Kyle Lapier has struggled, mired in fifth in the standings, but did manage a victory in early June.
A teammate of BJ Sparkman, Watertown , Wis. , hotshoe Scott Hoeft has emerged as a threat in his third year at the quarter-mile oval, sitting in third in the standings 38 points back but needing some help with time running out. Nick Cina Jr. has pieced together another solid campaign as well, running in fourth.
At the end of the day though, the championship is likely to be a sibling rivalry played out on the racetrack over the coming month. With just eight points separating the brothers, fans can look forward to an exciting climactic finish to the title chase that will likely leave future family functions a little tense at the Sparkman household.
Bargain Hunter Sportsman: Austin Nason doesn’t have his driver’s license yet but that hasn’t stopped the 15-year-old from pacing the Bargain Hunter Sportsman from the beginning of the year in an impressive display of driving acumen. Leading the points by seven markers in what may be the Rockford Speedway’s most competitive division on a weekly basis, Nason has two feature wins to his credit.
With a variety of winners including rookie Brad Gerke’s memorable trip to victory lane, Doug Bennett’s double dose of checkers, Scott Lawver’s Independence Day success, and defending champion Matt Berger’s foray into the winner’s circle, the division has been up for grabs on most nights. While Nason hasn’t put a win on the board since a May 28th victory that put him in the points lead by a slight margin over Matt Lundberg and his ‘Family Truckster’.
Lundberg is setting up a late season move for the title though, closing to within seven points of Nason over the last few weeks as he continues to consistently place ahead of the teenager. The station wagon that Lundberg pilots has landed in victory lane a division-leading three times and managed to survive a spectacular backstretch incident on July 16th. After the crash, Lundberg was left questioning whether or not he could make repairs but just a week later, he mounted a winning charge to victory lane and is sitting in a strong position with the season winding.
Austin Nason has the pressure squarely on his shoulders with a month to go – if the 15-year-old fends off Lundberg and Berger (32 points back), he’ll be the youngest NASCAR champion in Speedway history.
Mtn Dew RoadRunners: In a division that tailors itself to entry-level machines and fun-loving drivers, experienced veteran Alex Papini’s business-like approach has helped the twenty-something attain a division-leading four trips to victory lane and race out to a 22 point advantage over his budding rival, Howie Ware, in the standings with time running out on his competitors.
Papini’s return to the class that kicked off his Speedway career has seen him soar to incredible heights as the brash driver has made a weekly habit out of carving through the track’s deepest division from his back of the pack starting positions en route to top-five finishes and a number of victories. Ware has landed in the winner’s circle just once but has managed to continuously apply pressure to Papini, both in the standings and on the track. Both drivers were cautioned after an early-season dustup led to a war of words and fierce exhibitions of metal swapping on the high banks.
The traditional parity in the division has been there behind another stellar season from elder statesmen Gene Marocco while Arlyn Roush paces the Sam’s Drive-In RoadRunner Challenge standings. Past champion ‘Bullet’ Bobby Frisch notched the biggest win of the year for the motley bunch, scoring the ‘Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ in total darkness on the Fourth of July but ultimately, the hardware is going to go to either Papini or Ware as fans can look forward to an intense mano a mano duel on the track over the next month from the pair of veterans.
This article was posted to the website on August 4th, 2011
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