Northeast Modified driver Keith Rocco has closed the gap to just one point between he and Southeastern Late Model Stock Car driver Matt Bowling in the chase for the 2016 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship which is entering its final month.
Rocco, who has 12 wins this season, races SK Modifieds at New London-Waterford Speedbowl, Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park and Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut. He has scored all 12 of those wins at Waterford and Thompson. But he’s not worried about points right now. His main focus is winning races.
“We start a lot further behind the eight ball when the season starts,” Rocco said, eluding to the fact that Northeastern racetracks start two or three months later than Southeastern tracks. “By the time you get rolling, it’s the middle of June when you get as many races as they have. You take time and can’t get discouraged.
“The way the season’s been going, I try not to pay attention to points because there’s nothing I can change when I race for the title. I’d rather enjoy my family time and relax. We go out and race and it is what it is at the end of the day. There’s no math involved if you win races.”
Late in the season, Rocco has benefited from being able to race multiple times a week, whereas Bowling generally only competes once or twice a week.
“I race at three different racetracks, two nights a week,” Rocco remarked. “This week will be four but one is not a NASCAR sanctioned racetrack. I do a lot of racing. The way I grew up, my father raced three nights a week growing up watching him. It’s just the way we live.”
Bowling, on the other hand, is starting to feel the pressure from Rocco.
“We’re lucky to get twin races in at a lot of places,” Bowling said. “It helps keep up is in the hunt. We’re doing all we can. Every time we win, he does too. We can’t get ahead, we’re doing the best we can. All we can do is do our best and get as many wins as we can over the next four weeks.”
Last weekend, the 22-year-old Late Model racer from Ridgeway, Virginia picked up his 11th win of the season with a victory at Southern National Motorsports Park in North Carolina. Often times, Bowling is limited on options as to where he can race or how many times he can race since most Southeast short track promoters don’t realize there are seven days in a week.
“We’ll pursue options we have for races and make the best decisions with what’s racing and where we run best at and go to these places and look at car count,” Bowling remarked. “I’ll be at South Boston the next two weekends. I’ve got Kingsport Friday night. We have two weekends after that to decide where to go. Playing it week by week and make the decision as we go.”
Just because Rocco gets to race more doesn’t mean he has any sort of advantage by any means. The 31-year-old driver believes the SK Modifieds up north feature the toughest competition and that the race formats don’t always result in the best car or driver winning the race.
“There’s pros and cons to both,” Rocco stated. “They start up front, we race heat races and start in the back. It’s two different styles of racing from the north and the south.”
Rocco says it’s not just heat races and inverts and race formats that makes it tough to win races in the north, but also the level of competition.
“The competition level in Connecticut, I say it’s the fiercest competition in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series racing,” Rocco explained. “The talent, the guys you have in these divisions are incredible. You have Ted Christopher, Woody Pitkat, Ryan Preece, pretty much everybody we’re racing at Stafford are touring series guys in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Even Waterford, there are 10 guys that could win any given night.
“Competition is so fierce and it’s so hard to pass because everyone is so equal. This week, we had time trials and then did a redraw. I timed second and started sixth. It’s way different than the south.”
While Rocco has won a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship before and is often in the hunt, Bowling is new to the title chase.
When Late Model Stock Car drivers find themselves atop the national standings, it is usually either Lee Pulliam, Philip Morris or, in the case of the controversial and contested 2014 season, Anthony Anders. Bowling, who has won two track championships at South Boston Speedway, was not even thinking about points when the season started.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to win races and we’ve been fortunate enough to do it. A month left and we’re in contention,” Bowling stated. “That’s all you can ask for. We just have to keep winning.”
While Bowling has proven to be one of the best Late Model Stock Car racers in the region, 2016 has arguably been his best season to-date with wins at three different tracks and starts all across the region.
“This is the best year I’ve ever had,” Bowling explained. “Eight wins at South Boston, 2 at Southern National, 1 at East Carolina. It’s a great year. Everything’s gone the right way. We have really good cars. We’ve got good stuff right now and we’re making good decisions. That’s what matters right now. We just have to keep doing what we’ve done all year and try to close this thing out.”
Bowling has 657 points with Rocco one marker back but just winning races with 18 cars in the field is not the only thing that matters. NASCAR also rewards passing points in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series points structure, which could potentially be the thing that puts Rocco over the top.
Behind Bowling and Rocco, Irwindale Speedway competitor Trevor Huddleton sits 37 points back in third, reigning national champion Lee Pulliam sits 61 points back in fourth and Taylor Holdaway, who races at Sunset Speedway in Canada, sits fifth in points, 69 points behind Bowling.
The points cutoff for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is Sunday, September 18th. East Carolina Motor Speedway will hold the third annual Ronnie Barnette Memorial on Saturday, September 17th, a race that could potentially decide the outcome of the national championship.