Story By: SCOTT RUNNING / STAFFORD MOTOR SPEEDWAY – STAFFORD SPRINGS, CT – For Keith Rocco and the #88 Wheelers Auto SK Modified® team at Stafford Speedway, the 2020 season couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start.
Rocco won the first 2 races of the season to establish himself as the driver to beat in the race for the championship. Rocco and the #88 team have maintained that status throughout the course of 2020 and they can wrap up Rocco’s fourth career championship this Friday night, Oct. 2.
Rocco enters the race with a 70 point advantage over 2-time defending SK Modified® champion Ronnie Williams and a 76 point advantage over Todd Owen. With only 2 more opportunities to earn track championship points this season, Rocco only needs to finish 11th or better this Friday to become the 2020 SK Modified® champion.
“Winning races has always been our way of going about things and that’s what we’re at the track for,” said Rocco. “It would be exciting. [The championship] is obviously everyone’s goal come the end of the season so we’ll see how the cards fall and like I said, our goal will be to win the last 2 races. We’re just going to keep on doing what we’ve been doing all season long.”
Not only has Rocco been the dominant SK Modified® driver in 2020 with a division leading 5 wins through 12 races so far, he is the only driver to record a top-10 finish in each of the first 12 races with his worst finish of the season being a 7th place finish on two different occasions. Rocco once again reaped the benefits of being in top form at the beginning of the year by winning the first 2 races but he says the difference for the #88 team has been their ability to keep up with and adjust their car to changing track conditions.
“To be honest with you, it seems like we’re always in contention to either win the first race or two or to start the season off with a good track record,” said Rocco. “I think the difference this season has been consistency. Sometimes we fall off during the middle of summer and we don’t stay up with the track conditions. This year we’ve stayed consistent and changed whatever we’ve had to change in order to keep up with the track conditions during the summer and now going into the fall weather. We’ve actually had a couple of bad nights this season, it just doesn’t show up on our finishes. Like last Friday night, we got tangled up on lap 2 or 3 but we were able to get the nerf bar off the tire and get back out and salvage a good finish out of it. It all comes down to having a good team behind you.”
While Rocco’s 2020 performance is impressive, making it even more impressive is the fact that he has had to start in the middle of the pack for the majority of the 2020 season thanks to his weekly finishes inside the top-7. The way the Stafford Speedway handicapping system works is the better a driver does one week means they will be starting further towards the back for the next week and those drivers who don’t have a good finish start towards the front the following week. Rocco’s average starting position for the 2020 season is 10.6 but with an average finish of 3.5, he hasn’t let that faze him at all.
“Going back to when my brother and I were kids and we were helping Ted [Christopher], every week he was starting around 13th or 15th and I just take that as part of the game,” said Rocco. “You expect to start at the back of the field and we come to the track expecting to win the race and pass the most cars. If you look at everyone else who runs up front and wins races like Todd Owen, Ronnie Williams, and Chase Dowling, we’re all in the same boat of starting between 10th and 15th every week.”
Rocco will look to clinch his fourth career championship this Friday, October 2 with Stafford’s Late Models, SK Lights, Limited Late Models, and Street Stocks also in feature action. Tickets for this Friday night’s Stafford Weekly Racing Presented by All Phases Renovations program are on sale now through the Stafford Speedway website with adult general admission priced at $20.00, $5.00 for kids ages 6-14, kids 5 and under are admitted free. Paddock passes are priced at $40.00. The 2020 points race will conclude next Friday, October 9 with NAPA Auto Parts Championship Night.
Trio of Former Champions Dueling For 2020 Late Model Title At Stafford
With only 2 races remaining in the 2020 Stafford Speedway season, a trio of former track champions are separated by only 8 points in the race for the Late Model championship.
Two-time Late Model champion (’13, ’14) Adam Gray and the #97 Meadows Motor Car team lead the standings by only 4 points over Michael Bennett (’05 Limited Late Model, ’15 Late Model champion) and the #31 Aubuchon Hardware team, and 8 points over Al Saunders (’15 Limited Late Model champion) and the #40 American Sleeve Bearing team. Wayne Coury, Jr. and the #10 Wayne’s Auto Body team still have a mathematical shot at winning the title but they are 34 points behind Gray.
Coury won the first race of the season with Saunders winning the second race to take over the points lead. Gray didn’t win until the fourth race of the season but he leads all drivers with 5 wins in 12 starts. Gray had built up a comfortable lead in the standings but an 18th place finish on Sept. 4 and a 13th place finish last Friday night has seen most of Gray’s lead slowly erode from 28 points to only 4 points.
“We’ve had a pretty phenomenal season so far,” said Gray. “We’ve had a couple of bad nights but we’re still on top of the points so hopefully we can capitalize on that the rest of the season. We started off with this season supposed to be a part-time deal. The one race that we were planning on missing because my father was racing happened to rain out so we decided to go full-time. We have no complaints this year, we’re going out and having fun and doing what we love to do.”
“I think we haven’t met our expectations for this season because we haven’t visited victory lane yet,” said Bennett. “The ultimate goal is to win races and finish on the podium week in and week out and if you can do that, the points usually take care of themselves. I’d say that we’re happy to be in the position that we are with 2 races to go to be in the championship hunt. It’s somewhat disappointing that we haven’t won yet but we’re grateful that our consistency and finishes have given us an opportunity to become champions at the end of the season.”
“I’m pretty happy with how the season has gone so far,” said Saunders. “We don’t have as many podiums and top-5 finsihes as last year but the competition this year has been way tougher than it was last year. Other than our 1 DNF this year, our worst finish has been a 6th so it’s been a great season.”
“We had pretty high expectations coming into this season because we’ve been competitive at Stafford most times that we’ve showed up,” said Coury. “We didn’t expect to run full-time but with how this season shook out with a shortened schedule we decided to run full time because we felt like this might be the only year that we could run full-time. We’re pretty happy with how things have gone for us. Knowing now that we’re still mathematically eligible to win the championship, I’m a little disappointed with some of our bad finishes during the summer but overall we’re very happy.”
With each of the 4 contenders having at least one finish outside the top-10, they are all aware that anything can happen over the final 2 races and any one of them could take home the championship at the end of the season. With Coury being 34 points behind, he knows he has to go for wins while the other 3 contenders have to strike a balance somewhere in between aggressive and conservative.
“Any time you have a mechanical malfunction like we did last Friday when our alternator wire shorted out is disheartening,” said Gray. “But that’s more or less made us re-dot all of our i’s and cross of all of our t’s to make sure we don’t have another mechanical issue like that in the final 2 races. To be 100% honest, I’m not even looking at the points standings. We’re coming out to have fun and winning races is having fun. If we can continue doing what we’ve been doing all year long then the rest will fall where it falls. We’re coming to the track looking for wins.”
“The 2 championships that I’ve won as a driver I wrapped them up early so I haven’t been in a situation like this before,” said Bennett. “I think the pressure is on Adam and his team because they’ve had a couple of bad runs the last few weeks where we’ve been behind all year and still trying to win our first race. If we can win we get the most points and the standings will take care of itself. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for. We’ll be coming to the track with another new chassis setup this Friday looking for something to get us over that last hump. Hopefully we’ll be able to hit on something with 2 races left to go. It seems like this year and last year the car has been better in the cooler weather so hopefully we can take advantage of that.”
“We just have to keep on doing what we’ve been doing all year,” said Saunders. “I think Adam is going to be tough to catch, he’s probably going to have to make a mistake for us to catch him. There’s been races this year where all of us who are in the top-5 in the standings have either gained or lost 20 points in one race so it’s still doable and it’s anyone’s chance to win the championship. If I get too aggressive and take myself out of a race, Wayne Coury can pass us in the standings so it’s a little bit about protecting what we have versus attacking a little bit more and seeing if we can get a little more. The margin is only 8 points, which is 4 positions on the track. I have to be aggressive but I also have to be aware of the percentage of making a move work or not.
“We know it’s a long shot for us so all we can do is try to win the next two races and let the points fall where they may,” said Coury. “We’d had loved to be a little closer at this point but we’re happy where we are and I’d be real happy if we can get another win and at least have two more strong runs to finish the season.”
Brandon Michael Returning To Stafford Street Stock Competition Driving For Unlikely Team
Friday, September 25 saw Street Stock driver Brandon Michael take what was likely the hardest hit of his racing career into the turn 3 wall at Stafford Speedway.
Ever the racer, Michael will be returning to competition this Friday with an unforeseen twist. Michael hit the wall with his #74 All Season Small Engine Repair Chevrolet after contact from John Orsini in the #56 RSMPCO.com Chevrolet.
With Orsini indefinitely suspended from competition at Stafford, Michael has struck a deal to drive Orsini’s #56 car in the final 2 races of the 2020 season at Stafford.
“I’m definitely feeling better than I did last Friday,” said Michael. “Each day its getting better and I’m still a little sore but not sore enough to keep me away from racing. One of John’s sponsors, Jason Derwin with RSMPCO.com, contacted me and I was talking with his son Riley and he said he was going to be driving the #56 car. I mentioned to him that I was still searching for a ride and I talked things over with Jason. We came to an agreement, Jason ran this deal by John, and they agreed to put me in the car for the rest of the season. It’s definitely a strange deal, but we’re always down for some strange opportunities.”
Michael is still in search of his first win of the 2020 season, having posted 3 top-5 and 5 top-10 finishes in 9 races this season. Orsini’s best finish of the season was a fourth in the opening race of the 2020 season back on June 26 but Michael thinks the #56 car has everything he needs to win and his mindset is to capture a victory before the 2020 season comes to an end.
“We have some pretty good confidence in the performance of the #56 car and all the guys I have behind me,” said Michael. “We’re coming to the track to win and we’re going to give it everything we have. Obviously it’s a new car to me so we’ll have to take every lap we can get out on the track to get comfortable in it. I think we’ll be able to work with what we have, it’s good equipment so we should be pretty well set to go to try to take the car to the front. I’ve seen the car in person, John has the best equipment, and it’s a safe car which was one of my biggest concerns. We looked at a few cars this week that didn’t quite have what we were looking for with safety stuff. Between people wanting to either help me out or just to wish me well, I’ve had probably over 300 people reach out to me, it’s been amazing to see the amount of people who contacted me through Facebook or by texting me. My biggest goal was to get back to the track this Friday so this is pretty great. I have to thank John Orsini for letting me drive his car, Jason Derwin from RSMPCO.com for helping to put this deal together, All Season Small Engine Repair, EJK Construction, Kobos Landscaping, Berardi Transmissions, R.A.D. Auto Machine, my entire family and crew, and special thanks to Ed Flemke from Raceworks.”