Wait, wait and wait some more.
Lee Pulliam had already done that three times before, but on Sept. 21, 2017, the Semora, North Carolina, native found himself waiting for an important phone call once again.
After many long hours of waiting, Pulliam got the call from NASCAR that he had been crowned the 2017 NASCAR Whelen All-American Seires national champion. He won the championship by a mere three points over Trevor Huddleston.
“There is no I in team, so we couldn’t have done it without some really important people,” Pulliam said. “It was stressful and pretty nerve-wracking this year, because you are basically talking about one or two cars on the race track.”
The title allowed Pulliam to tie Philip Morris for the second most national titles all-time, with four. All of Pulliam’s national titles have come in the last five years, with the first coming in 2012. He also won in 2013 and 2015 and he finished second in 2014.
“Every year is a little bit different, but I want to be successful, so the stress level is there no matter what,” Pulliam said of his 2017 title run. “The experience (from past titles) has allowed me to stay calm and cool on the track and know that I need to perform. During the week, I get a little stressed out looking at it.”
In the last seven years, Pulliam has finished inside the top five in the national standings each year. Morris, Anthony Anders and Matt Bowling were the only other three drivers to win the title in that stretch. He still trails the late Larry Phillips, who won five times in his career.
From 2011 to ’17, Pulliam has 155 wins in 290 starts. He has 161 career NASCAR Late Model wins since 2008, when he made his first and only start of that season.
“I want to make as big of an impact as I can on this series and on this level,” Pulliam said. “I just want to see how far I can go. It’s awesome to think about and talk about, but at the same time you have to just keep grinding if you want to keep winning. I can’t worry about the stats a whole lot. We are just focused on winning the next one.”
In 45 starts across eight different tracks, Pulliam was victorious 19 times this year. The stretch also included 36 top fives and 43 top 10s, allowing him to defeat Huddleston, but only by just those three points. Huddleston only competed at three tracks, but won 22 of his 35 starts between Irwindale, Kern County and Tucson.
Pulliam competed across three different states and eight different tracks, running races at North Carolina’s Southern National Raceway Park, Hickory Motor Speedway and Caraway Speedway. In South Carolina, he won the track championship at Myrtle Beach Speedway and also competed at Anderson Speedway. In Virginia, Pulliam ran at Dominion Raceway, Motor Mile Speedway and South Boston Speedway. All eight tracks allowed him to pick up crucial points he needed to become national champion for a record fourth time.
However, although he ran races across those eight circuits, Pulliam frequently visited the winner’s circle at Myrtle Beach in 2017. In 17 starts on the 0.538-mile oval, he won 14 times as part of the Late Model class. He started with a victory in the Icebreaker in February and finished it off with a win on the final points night, September 9. However, his plan at the outset of the season didn’t even include many races there.
“We really hadn’t even planned to run there full-time, because it’s somewhere I didn’t have a lot of experience,” Pulliam said. “But we decided to make the haul down there. It’s five and half hours and it really took a lot of effort from the team. Everyone put a lot of effort into going that extra mile to be able to race down there. We went to the Icebreaker, the car count was great and we kind of looked at it as the perfect place to run a full season — because the car count is so important to winning this title.”
The 29-year-old who now calls Alton, Virginia home, says that victory in the Icebreaker at Myrtle Beach really set the tone for him to be able to make the championship run.
“The way we set the tone at the Icebreaker, we went out and were pretty dominant and it just set that tone to keep going there for the rest of the year,” Pulliam said. “If we would have went there and run fifth, we probably wouldn’t have gone their full-time.”
Although the season started with a few victories, Pulliam did have a stretch where he wasn’t successful on the track, because of some bad luck. However, in order to win the title, he had to keep pushing.
“We started off the year hot out of the box and won quite a few races, then we had a lull, and I started checking the points out and I saw Trevor was about seventh or eighth, but I saw how many races he had started,” Pulliam said. “I told my guys that he was going to be one of the guys we were going to have to beat if we wanted to win. I had no idea it was going to be so close come down the end. We were able to get rid of some of the bad luck and start winning races again and that was the difference.”
At the start of the season, Pulliam wasn’t even sure what he was going to do in order to chase the trophy.
“Every year I just leave it open because I found that every year takes something different to win,” Pulliam said. “I just try to go where I feel like my momentum is, and it ended up being Myrtle Beach this year. We weren’t really sure where we were going to go, but we wanted to do what we performed the best at. We didn’t really have a plan.”
All championships are important in any sport, but this season, Pulliam’s title hit close to home. He was able to celebrate with his family, especially his wife and newest daughter Brantley. The support from his family has been something that allowed him to have the drive to win. He told his wife that he was going to put everything he could towards winning a fourth national title, and in the end, he accomplished his goal.
“Two years ago, I stood on this stage just two weeks after my wife was involved in an accident that broke her femur,” Pulliam said. “At the hospital, we learned that she was pregnant, and today, we have the most beautiful 16-month-old girl. I was able to share it with my family this year. I became a dad in 2016 and it changes a lot of things and it makes racing a little bit tougher because you have an added responsibility, but there is nothing I enjoy more than being a dad. Trying to balance time with the family, with having fast race cars and racing every week, it was more mentally tough than any of the other titles. I wanted to be able to take a photo with my girl and the big trophy. It was a little bit of extra motivation.”
For now, Pulliam is soaking up the glory of being champion for the fourth time.
“It’s a blessing to have such a good car owner and team, we worked so many hours this year,” Pulliam said. “My guys went above and beyond and never gave up. It would have been easy to go home or go to bed early, but they didn’t do that. We missed a lot of dinners and we missed a lot of events this year to make this happen. It gives you goosebumps thinking about number five, I’m not sure this is the year because I’m busy with my family, but I would love to do it. It takes a lot out of you when you go racing. There has to be a balance.”
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