In this first report for #TheWatch, the title fight for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I National Championship is about as close as it gets. Late Model Stock Car driver Matt Bowling continues to lead the national points, but SK Modified veteran Keith Rocco has tightened the gap to a mere one point in the championship battle.
Both drivers added a single win to their season totals this past Saturday, Bowling at Southern National Motorsports Park (NC) for his 11th win of the season and Rocco at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl (CT) for his 12th.
While Bowling is still a relative newcomer to the national title hunt, Rocco is chock full of experience, competing year after year, including in 2010 when he won the national title. As for his keys to success, one of them is to simply be himself both on and off the track despite how the standings may look.
“Every year we’ve been in contention in the top three, we just fell out of the top three last year at the end of the season,” Rocco told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “To be honest, it doesn’t change how I race or how I go about my racing career for the time being. As young as I am, I try to race as much as I can and just find ourselves at the end of the season in contention for it, just by doing what we do.”
During that 2010 championship season, Rocco placed a lot of attention on how his fellow competitors across the country were progressing during the season. Times have now changed for “Kid Roc,” who has become a family man since that time. That, plus his championship experience, has him taking a more relaxed look at the big picture.
“Up until I won it, I used to watch it constantly and now having a few kids, a family, and everything else, I try not to get wrapped up in it because it does put a lot of pressure on you and it takes your concentration away from family,” he said. “I just go out there to race and just have as much fun with it as I can and not even think about it or pay attention to it. If it’s meant to be at the end of the year, you can’t change anything, I race two or three nights a week. It’s not like I can change what I do, do more or do less. We’ll just go about it and see what happens.”
While Rocco competes at all three of Connecticut’s short tracks full time in the SK Modifieds, the New London-Waterford Speedbowl on the shoreline is where he got his start and where he has enjoyed the most success. He is a five-time and defending SK Modified champion and owns two Late Model titles. He also became the all-time Speedbowl wins leader in May 2015.
Currently, Rocco leads the points in both divisions in 2016 and is coming off his sixth SK Modified win this past weekend. Quite the feat when, according to Rocco, winning at the Bowl has become a difficult prospect in the last year or two.
“There used to be a time when I’d win 13 races a year down there, the competition level is very competitive and there’s a lot of cars that can win,” Rocco explained. “But, the track isn’t what it used to be, you used to be able to tear through the field, the outside used to be really good there. Times have changed, the asphalt is wearing out and it’s a little tougher to get through traffic. Other than that, it is very competitive down there. It’s hard to get a win, other than me with six wins, there are few repeat winners.”
Rocco has also scored six victories this season up north at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park (CT) on Wednesday nights in 2016. He leads the points in the SK Modifieds in pursuit of his fifth Thompson championship. It has also been a reunion season with Rocco returning to drive car owners Mark and Mike Payne’s No. 57 entry, the same team that Rocco drove for at Thompson and Waterford when he won the 2010 national title.
“It’s a lot of fun racing with them. In 2010 when I did win the National Championship, they were a big part of it, they contributed a lot to it. Can’t say enough about having great car owners. That’s a lot of the battle is having the right people surrounding you.”
Rocco’s greatest challenge in 2016 has been Friday night competition at Stafford Motor Speedway. While he and his Stafford team under owner John Rufrano have shown consistency with nine top-10 finishes in 12 races and by running third in the track SK Modified standings, victory has eluded him at Connecticut’s half-mile in 2016. But late season wins have been the norm for Rocco at Stafford the past few seasons, and doing the same this year may just tip the scales in the national title in his favor due to Stafford’s legendary competition.
“We’re trying real hard for that victory. The competition level at Stafford is fiercer than anywhere else. We’ve had a lot of podiums but we just can’t nail down the win yet. Hopefully we can get one before the year is over.”
While Rocco now trails Bowling by just one point in the NWAAS Division I standings, West Coast Late Model driver Trevor Huddleston remains 37 points back of Bowling in third. Defending national champion Lee Pulliam jumped up one spot to fourth in the standings with a win at Southern National Motorsports Park, while Sunset International Speedway (ON) competitor Taylor Holdaway moved up to fifth.
Another driver to keep a watch on during #TheWatch is Ty Majeski who now has 12 NWAAS wins this season and is earning bonus points by having to start at the rear of the field. He gained 70 points last week and now sits 10th in the standings.
Last Week’s Results:
Matt Bowling – Suffered engine problems and did not race Friday at Caraway Speedway (NC). Scored a win and a ninth-place finish in twin Late Model features at Southern National (NC).
Keith Rocco – Finished 14th in a full field at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT) on Friday night. Recorded a win and fifth-place finish in a pair of SK Modified features at the New-London Waterford Speedway on Saturday.
Trevor Huddleston – Finished ninth at Irwindale Speedway on Saturday.
Lee Pulliam – Finished third in a Late Model Stock 50-lap race at Caraway on Friday. Finished fourth in the first of two Late Model races at Southern National and won the second race.
Taylor Holdaway – Finished third and sixth in a pair of Late Model races at Sunset.
This Week’s Plans:
Matt Bowling – Bowling will make his way to Kingsport Speedway (TN) on Friday night for a pair of Late Model Stock features. He will then continue his chase towards the South Boston Speedway (VA) title on Saturday with a 100-lap feature race.
Keith Rocco – Sunoco Modified Twin 25s at Thompson on Wednesday night. SK Modified 40-lap feature at Stafford on Friday. Thirty-five lap SK Modified race at Waterford on Saturday.
Trevor Huddleston – NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competition resumes at Irwindale Speedway on September 10.
Lee Pulliam – We expect to see Pulliam at Motor Mile on Saturday night for twin 75-lap Late Model features. It is unknown whether or not Pulliam will travel anywhere else this weekend.
Taylor Holdaway – The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Models at Sunset have the week off before returning to action on September 3 for twin 35-lap races.
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, MA, Long Island) – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com