Earlier this week, JR Motorsports, the NASCAR Busch Series team owned by Cup Series star Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced that former USAR Hooters Pro Cup regular Mark McFarland was fired the #88 NAVY-sponsored Chevrolets. It didn’t take Junior long to think of who would fill the void. He just had to look to the other end of the JR Motorsports shop to where the #88 USAR Hooters Pro Cup machines operated by the same team were prepared for driver Shane Huffman.
Huffman’s bumper on a green-white-checkered finish Saturday night, but Huffman proved to be too strong.
For Huffman, it was exactly how he wanted start his swan song in the Pro Cup ranks. In victory lane, the non-stop smile that has been on his face since getting the call from Dale Jr. last week was brighter than ever.
“It feels awesome,” said Huffman. “I’ve just got a great bunch of guys on this team. I’m excited about everything really. Hell, it’s like a dream. I can’t believe the opportunity I got. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve all this, but I appreciate Junior having enough confidence in me to get put in that Busch car.
Huffman capped off a memorable week by winning at Peach State, (Kathy Bond photo)
“It sucks that it came at the expense of a great friend like Mark. He and mine friendship is going to be fine. He’s a good friend and a hell of a racecar driver. For me, it doesn’t get any better than this. Everything went our way tonight.”
Fans at Peach State that had never seen the Pro Cup drivers there may not have expected Huffman to have much of a shot at victory when the green flag dropped Saturday night. Huffman started 12th, and with the lack of an outside groove because of rain showers that swept through the area Saturday morning washing the rubber off the track, it would be tough for Huffman to work his
Shane Huffman's #88 (51 Photo)
Everyone in the short track racing world knew that when JR Motorsports put Shane Huffman in the seat of the #88 USAR Hooters Pro Cup Chevys before the 2006 season, Huffman was being groomed as a potential candidate for a Busch Series ride with the team. Nobody, not even Huffman, saw it coming this soon however. McFarland’s firing meant Huffman got the nod for the rest of the 2006 season, but there was still some unfinished business that Huffman had to take care of before moving to the big leagues.
Even before the Busch Series announcement, Huffman was preparing his #88 Pro Cup car for Saturday night’s race at Peach State Speedway (GA). Now that he was making the move to the Busch Series, everyone in the Pro Cup Southern Division ranks had their targets on Huffman, especially considering how well Huffman had performed at Peach State in the past. Everyone used differing pit strategies, contact with Huffman, and whatever else they could do, but nobody was going to deny Huffman an early departing gift from the Pro Cup Series.
Except, of course, for championship rival Clay Rogers. Rogers made the best of his late pit strategy to work his way to
way to the front. But Shane Huffman at Peach State means patience. Huffman is notorious for biding his time early in past races at Peach State and saving his tires for when the race was on the line. Saturday it was more of the same.
Huffman made his final pit stop on lap 175 and waited for the race’s most dominant driver, driven by Rogers, and the rest of the leaders to make their final stop to move to the front. Rogers’ stop on a lap-206 restart allowed Huffman to move up to second on while Rogers was trying to pick his way back to the front. Rogers made it up to second when the night’s final yellow came out, closing the field back up and giving Rogers one more shot at his rival. On the restart, Huffman got the jump, leaving Rogers in his dust.
“I knew that Clay had a good car,” said Huffman. “I told him that he was going to have to knock me out of the way to get around me. Luckily he didn’t.”
Rogers had no one to blame on finishing second to Huffman but himself.
“We were way quicker than him but I just didn’t do what I get paid to do,” said Rogers. “I didn’t get a very good restart. I had been having trouble with them all night long. The car was a little tight and all I knew I had to do was be patient and wait on a good run on up off the corner. I got it on the white flag lap but he pinched me pretty good in turn three on the last lap. I gave him the win instead of giving it to myself.”
Bobby Gill, who despite having three Pro Cup Championships to his name, scored just his third-career pole in the series Saturday afternoon at Peach State. It didn’t take long for Rogers to flex his muscle, moving into the lead by lap eight. Rogers held the lead until the first set of pit stops. From there, while the perpetual headline-makers Rogers, Huffman and Gill were working their way through traffic, the faces of Don Satterfield, Shane Hall, Daniel Johnson and Wayne Willard had their turns running up front. Eventually, it was left as a three-car battle for the win between Huffman, Rogers and an impressive Michael Ritch.
Michael Ritch (#28) and Justin Hobgood spent plenty of time up front. (Bond Photo)
Ritch took the lead from Rogers on lap 195. When Rogers hit pit road for a yellow-flag stop during the lap 206 caution, Huffman moved to third and took second on the ensuing restart. With fresher tires, Huffman peppered the rear bumper of Ritch. Ritch did everything he could to keep Huffman at bay, but Huffman was too strong, taking the lead for the final time on lap 212 of the 250-lap race.
For Ritch, Huffman’s move for the lead was imminent.
“We had the best car here tonight,” said Ritch. “It was either me or the #44 (Rogers). The #88 put tires on late in the race and we made a mistake by only taking two. We stayed out and put four tires on at about lap 120. We had already used up our right sides so we didn’t have any tires left at the end.
“Shane had 60-lap fresher tires. I was trying my best to stay on the bottom. He’s not an idiot, he’s a great racer. I came down on him. Yeah, he got into me too but so what, that’s racing. I’m a good enough driver to correct it when that happens. There’s a lot of other drivers that would’ve spun out. He definitely had the car and had a lot better racecar than I did. There’s no hard feelings. It’s like racing at Darlington. If you’ve got fresher tires you’re a lot faster.”
That left just the two Southern Division rivals, Rogers and Huffman, to duke it out over the final laps. With fresh tires, Rogers made quick work of the remaining cars in his way and began his pursuit of Huffman with just seven laps remaining, but the leader was pulling away.
Rogers’ runner-up finish did keep him atop the Southern Division standings, but Huffman’s win cut the deficit to just 77 points going into the final regular-season races at Bristol and Lakeland to close out the schedule before the Championship Series starts on September 15th at the new Iowa Speedway.
Even though he’s moving on to the Busch Series, Huffman’s win Saturday was not all for naught. He will be back in the seat of the #88 Pro Cup car at Bristol, and with a little luck, maybe even again at Lakeland to close out his Pro Cup season with the Southern Division championship.
“I believe I’ve got an even better car to go (to Bristol) with than we had here tonight. Hopefully we can end up with two in a row. I don’t know, if we win these last two then it’s going to be hard to keep me from going to Lakeland, I’ll tell you that.
“For sure, there’s no better way to go out than to win these last races. If I knew we didn’t have such a good car for Bristol then I might quit after tonight. But I’m a racer and it’s a lot of fun.”
With a win at Peach State and a Busch Series ride lined up, it’s good to be Shane Huffman these days.
“I’m just privileged, man. I get to go out and do what I love to do and I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.”
Justin Hobgood scored a career-best third behind Huffman and Rogers, with Ritch and Shane Wallace rounding out the top five.
Aaron's 250 Results
Peach State Speedway, Jefferson, GA
1. Shane Huffman
2. Clay Rogers
3. Justin Hobgood
4. Michael Ritch
5. Shane Wallace
6. Bobby Gill
7. Matt Carter
8. Joey Logano
9. Ricky Turner
10. Jay Fogleman
11. Jody Lavender
12. Trevor Bayne
13. Kirk Leone
14. Don Satterfield
15. J.P. Morgan
16. Shane Hall
17. A.J. Fike
18. Mardy Lindley
19. Daniel Johnson
20. Mike Herman Jr.
21. George Brunnhoelzl III
22. Mike Hampton
23. Randy Gentry
24. Michelle Theriault
25. Mike Mason
26. Billy Bigley Jr.
27. Andrew Rogers
28. Jeff Fultz
29. Dange Hanniford
30. Wayne Willard
31. Bobby Joe Woodley
32. Brett Butler
“It’s a blast to pass cars like that, but it sucks when the leader gets that far away,” said Rogers. “When you’re three-tenths (a second) quicker than the leader but you’re being held up a half-second a lap, the leader gets out to a big lead. We just caught a bunch of cautions at the end and I think I could’ve passed him if we went green. There were probably one or two of the cautions at the end that we didn’t need of the three or four that we had. Hindight’s always 20/20.
“What held us back tonight was that the top of the racetrack never came in. that never opened up a groove so that you could run around the outside of people. Everytime you got up to the top you’d get loose real bad. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen tonight. We’ll take our second and keep our points lead and we’ll go to the house.