NOT THE SAME OLD TITLE STORY FOR CLAY ROGERS by Mike Twist
Pro Cup Champ Is Unsure of His Future After Team Disbands
On the surface, the story of Clay Rogers winning the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series Championship seems pretty typical. Over the past several seasons, the Pro Cup championship battle has been a see-saw of sorts. Rogers won the overall championship in 2004. Benny Gordon won it in 2005. So it was no surprise that Rogers came back and earned title number two in 2006.
brought up in talking with Speed51.com. But this isn’t one of those “I’m happy that this team won the
championship and we’re coming back to give them hell next year” stories. In 2007, the USAR Pro Cup Championship driver and team will not be defending their title together. In fact, Rogers doesn’t even know if he’ll be defending his championship at all.
“Unfortunately, East Coast Motor Sports is closing their doors,” said Rogers. “We’re trying to get something put together for next year for everyone. I know that a lot of the crew members have found homes at other teams. But the driver is still looking.”
As the clocked ticked down on their season, and Rogers’ team contended for a championship, they also knew when the season ended, so would the team.
“We pretty much knew that we wouldn’t be back together,” said Rogers. “The two owners, Johnny Dangerfield and Troy Baird have blossoming businesses in the trucking industry, with car dealerships, with Johnny’s Suzuki and in everything that they do. They are all businesses that are growing so much and they need to tend to that. Plus, they both have young families and kids who play baseball. They’re ready to spend some time with family and not have to juggle around raceteams and such. They definitely want to continue in racing someday, but right now they need to take some time off.
“It was kind of hard [knowing that the team was closing. The roughest thing is having the guys have to look for jobs before Christmas. That’s never fun. But now we’ve got everyone is good shape. I’m looking forward to moving on.”
Rogers’ crew chief has already found a new home. Blake Bainbridge has been announced as the new crew chief for Trevor Bayne going into next year. Looking back on this year, Rogers credits Bainbridge and his style of management for not only winning the championship, but also earning the team more than their
Rogers' #44 team won't be around in 2007.
But for Rogers, winning another championship, and the position that he now finds himself in, is anything but business as usual.
“It’s not routine,” said Rogers. “Every championship that you get, whether it is in WKA [World Karting Association], Legacy Cars, Late Model Stocks or whatever is special. There’s a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears that goes into anything worth doing. I’m definitely proud of everything that our team accomplished this year.”
Rogers is very proud of what his team accomplished. It’s one of the first things about the season that he
fair share of bragging rights at just about every event. That
is one thing that Rogers will miss.
“I would have loved to have kept that group together and move to the Truck Series or Busch Series. Especially with the experience that [crew chief] Blake Bainbridge has got. He ran our race team this year like a Busch team or a Truck team. I feel that we were the most organized team at the race track all year long. We had nice racecars all year long, everything was fabricated extremely well. We were always clean and always fast. That was the proudest thing for me. We would get to the racetrack every week with good looking racecars that went fast for a team that worked well together.”
At 26-years-old, Rogers seems ripe for a move to one of NASCAR’s top three divisions. He’s old enough to be experienced, young enough to have a long future ahead of him and is a proven commodity on the short tracks. He also has some big league experience.
First came the forgettable experience of sharing a Busch car with Matt Kenseth in 2001. In nine starts, Rogers only managed two top 20 finishes. Still, seat time is seat time and 2001 was no doubt a good learning experience. A few years wiser, Rogers ran a limited schedule of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races in 2005. This time, he overperformed with an underdog team – finishing a career best fourth-place at New Hampshire. On that day, only the factory backed teams of Rick Crawford, Dennis Setzer and Ted Musgrave could outperform Rogers.
Rogers has shown that he can get the job done in the majors, but that doesn’t ensure a chance to do so. Come to think of it, Rogers isn’t sure what would bring about that golden opportunity.
“I really don’t know what you need to do to get over there anymore,” said Rogers. “I’ve tried to beat down every door that I know how to beat down and all that I can do is to get my fingers in just to have the door slammed on them.”
Now Rogers has to weigh whether to pursue another Pro Cup ride or stay a free agent in case something comes available during NASCAR’s 12-month long silly season.
“There are definitely opportunities for me in the Hooters Pro Cup Series, but I’ve won two championships now and I figure that if I want to try and get back up there I need to do it and keep my schedule open for next year. Maybe I can find the opportunities to do some part-time things. I might have the opportunity to run 10 Truck races, but nothing is signed or sealed yet. I’m looking for something full-time.
Michael Ritch (#28) and Justin Hobgood spent plenty of time up front. (Bond Photo)
“Over the past three seasons, I’ve had opportunities to drive Trucks or Busch cars. Sometimes I could and sometimes I couldn’t. I was committed to running the Hooters schedule full-time and trying to win championships for our owners. I’m going to try and keep my schedule open next year so if there are opportunities, I won’t have to pass.”
One thing is for certain though, Rogers feels that he has measured himself against the best in short track racing this season. Early year battles with Shane Huffman behind the wheel of a Pro Cup car owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were the norm before Huffman got the call to move up to the Busch Series halfway through the 2006 season. Later in the year, Huffman faced off against the powerhouse team of Benny Gordon on several occasions. Winning anything in the Pro Cup Series this past season wasn’t easy – but that doesn’t mean that the movers and shakers at the top of the sport even noticed.
when all of the dust settled on the weekend, where do you think Rogers finished?
That’s right. First place – again.
“That’s the sad thing about the Hooter’s Cup Series. It is so competitive, but people don’t see it. It is probably the most underrated series in the country right now. Benny Gordon and those guys have good budgets and are on top of their game. You’ve got Joe Gibbs teams, you’ve got [Dale] Junior’s team and then you’ve always got Bobby Gill. As far as I’m concerned, he is one of the best short track racers in the country. That’s been true over the past 15 years pretty much. There’s some really great competition anywhere that you look in Pro Cup.”
Great competition isn’t limited to Pro Cup either. Earlier this month, nearly 70 racers showed up at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida for what is arguably the biggest asphalt short track race of the season – The Snowball Derby. Rogers was among the entries and
Clay (L) and Shane Huffman (R) fought some close battles in Pro Cup - might their rivalry continue in the NASCAR Busch Series at a later date?
Clay knows how to celebrate in victory lane - he gets plenty of practice.