AJ Sanders has been around racing long enough that he knows exactly what is at stake.
With just under two months remaining in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season, Sanders is hoping to turn his early-season success into a NASCAR national title.
“I’d love to win the NASCAR championship,” said the 46-year-old from Mocksville, North Carolina. “It’s a big goal. I’m going to try everything I can to win this championship.”
Sanders has won nine of 10 starts at two North Carolina tracks, racing Stadium Stocks at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, and Caraway Speedway in Sophia. He is fifth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division IV national standings.
“I’ve been a NASCAR member ever since I was 18. It’s been great – NASCAR has always been good to me” said Sanders, who said he’s won nine division championships at various NASCAR and non-NASCAR tracks, and hundreds of races.
But, he added, “I’ve never been this high up and had this good a shot (to win a NASCAR national title).”
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division II-V Championship program determines support division national championships. In each division, dirt and asphalt tracks are combined in point standings. The four national champions will receive a trophy and a trip to the series national awards event. In addition, the top-three dirt and top-three asphalt drivers will be invited to the series awards event.
At season’s end, drivers in Divisions II-V will be ranked by their best 14 NASCAR point race results. The season concludes September 21.
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Championship Division II-V leaders this week include:
- Division II: 1. Jesse Dennis, I-80 Speedway, Greenwood, Neb., Adams County Speedway, Corning, Iowa; 2. Ryan Robertson, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.; 3. Keith Rocco, Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl, Thompson (Conn.) Speedway Motorsports Park; 4. Jared Umbenhauer, Grandview Speedway, Bechtelsville, Pa.; 5. Taylor Branch, Bowman Gray.
- Division III: 1. Jerod Weston, I-80, Adams County; 2. John Ketron, Kingsport (Tenn.) Speedway, Lonesome Pine Raceway, Coeburn, Va.; 3. Blain Petersen, I-80, Adams County; 4. Josh Sink, Adams County, I-80; 5. Jason Ketron, Lonesome Pine, Kingsport.
- Division IV: 1. Brad Derry, Adams County, I-80; 2. Corey Kyer, Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway; 3. Jimmy McElfresh, Columbus, Kil-Kare Raceway, Xenia, Ohio; 4. Jeremy Menninger, Columbus; 5. AJ Sanders Jr.
- Division V: 1. Brian King, Anderson (S.C.) Motor Speedway, Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway; 2. Donavan Beacham, Anderson, Greenville; 3. Chris Harvell, Greenville, Anderson; 4. C.J. Huitt Jr., Greenville, Anderson; 5. Don Tavernia, Anderson, Greenville.
Five of Sanders wins have come at Bowman Gray, where he is fourth in the standings; four have come at Caraway, where he is second because of missing a race.
His standings deficit at Bowman Gray was caused by misfortunate at the most inopportune time: He wrecked during a double-points feature and finished 16th.
“It was just a racing incident,” said Sanders, who added he was going for third when the accident happened. “I looked to the outside of one guy and another tried the inside; he got into me and I wound up in the wall. It was just typical racing on a tight quarter-mile track.”
Remarkably, given the close quarters racing that goes on at Bowman Gray, Sanders has managed to stay out of trouble despite having to come up through traffic to get his wins. Four of his victories at the historic flat-track have come when he’s started 10th or further back.
“The biggest thing is getting your car to really, really handle – especially on the outside,” Sanders said. “Everybody will give you the outside at Bowman Gray. Nobody will give you the inside. You have to get your car to really, really rotate through the corners.
“I’ve raced for 35 years and know how that’s done.”
Sanders credits his dad, Archie Sanders Sr., for teaching him through the years. The elder Sanders passed away last October. But when they were at the track, AJ Sanders said they were inseparable.
“I wish he was here seeing me doing this well,” Sanders said.
It’s been a long road. Sanders said he started out racing on dirt in local divisions, although he admits “I thought I could drive. And couldn’t. That was a bad experience. I was going out and wrecking cars.”
He bounced around at various short tracks in North Carolina, learning from the veteran racers and having fun. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to race in a division where he could have fun and be more competitive. A maintenance worker at Wake Forest University, Sanders said the best thing about the Stadium/Mini Stock is he can work on the car himself and do the repairs, and then race with family and friends on the weekend.
Two years ago, he was involved in an accident where he was hit by a truck while pushing his race car into his shop’s driveway. Sanders said he was dragged more than 80 feet, and suffered a multitude of injuries including broken ribs, ruptured spleen, broken bones in his right foot and a broken collarbone.
Last year, he was leading the points at Bowman Gray when he suffered a heart attack at Bowman Gray.
After all that, Sanders is back racing.
“We’ve been through a lot but we’re going to come through this year,” Sanders said. “We’re going to dig our way back.”
Sanders had his frame – a stock Ford Mustang Chassis with a roll cage – built by the students in the motorsports technology program at the Richard Childress Race Car Technology at Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem. He’s been supported by Triad Choice Reality, Twin City Towing, MAHLE Clevite, and Jerry Hunt Auto Sales. Crew chief Terry Thompson has helped in every week and crew member Chuck Hall have also contributed to the effort.
“I’ve had a lot of good help from good friends,” said Sanders, whose sons Andrew and Stephen also race with him. “
Under the NASCAR point structure in Divisions I-V, drivers receive two points for every car they finish ahead of in an event, up to 18 cars. Three bonus points will be awarded to a race winner with a single-digit starting position and five bonus points will be awarded to a race winner with a double-digit starting position.
Drivers must be NASCAR-licensed and cars will be verified for display of required series sponsor decals to be eligible for NASCAR points and awards.
NASCAR IMC – Photo Courtesy Bowman Gray Stadium