LADY LUCK AND A FAST CAR PROPELS CHOQUETTE TO VICTORY By Steven Neely
Florida Driver Escapes "The Big One" to get Big SpeedFest Win
So much about the sport of auto racing, particularly Super Late Model racing, involves luck. As the old adage goes, luck is where preparation and opportunity meet. Jeff Choquette can certainly attest to that, having used pit strategy and skill in avoiding a melee en route to winning the NOS Energy Drink 200 at USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Florida on Sunday.
The key moment of the race was after a lap 109 caution for a spin by Brian Finney. Most of the leaders came to the attention of their crews in the pits for tires and fuel, and Choquette and his crew narrowly beat out the #8 machine of Eddie Hoffman out of the pits, putting Choquette fourth in line on the restart.
"The Big One" during 2008 Speedfest collected a total of 17-cars in turn-one. (51/Jamie Williams photo)
On the ensuing restart on lap 117, battery problems plagued second-place Jay Middleton’s car suddenly, causing his car to sputter as the leaders came past the start-finish line. Evasive maneuvers by third-place Mac Johnson and others triggered a massive pileup in turn one that made it appear like a parking lot rather than one of the Southeast’s fastest short tracks. Choquette threaded the needle on the high side, narrowly avoiding the carnage.
“It just went our way,” said Choquette. “A lot of this stuff in racing is having it all fall your way. We came in after the first group pitted and changed tires, and we came out with Eddie Hoffman. The officials said I beat him out so I started in front of him. When we went green I saw them all wrecking there and the 60 car (D.J. Shaw) got turned into Hoffman. So yeah, that could have been me.”
When it was all said and done, 17 cars were involved in the wreck, over half the starting grid for the race. Ten of those cars never saw another lap, and an eleventh car, NASCAR standout and current Nationwide Series driver David Stremme’s #35 machine, rode around for a handful of laps before succumbing to his damage.
The race was red flagged for 32 minutes to get the cars cleared from the wreck. Middleton offered his description of what happened on the restart.
“I told Mac Johnson, he’s been working out of our shop and everything, and I told the spotter ‘Hey man, if this thing dies at the flag stand like it’s been doing, I want you to be inside me at the flag stand.’” said Middleton. “He didn’t do it, and as soon as it kicked in, and I’m not sure if it was even going to kick in and wasn’t sure if it was going to do it or not because I had the alternator, but I pointed right to the inside. I don’t know if he freaked out or what.”
Johnson, a journeyman racer from Newberry, Florida, described the incident from his perspective.
“We were sitting there in third place and they came over the radio and said that Middleton’s car had a wiring problem or ignition problem and kept shutting off. We went down the front straightaway and his car shut off going into the turn and he waved his arm to move. To keep from hitting him I went down, but everyone was already stacking up.
Soon after the race resumed green-flag racing, the winners of Friday night’s 100-lap qualifying races charged to the head of the field. The North Division qualifier winner, Ryan Lawler, moved to the lead past Justin Drawdy, with the South Division qualifier winner, Choquette, right in tow.
The late stages of the race came down to a showdown of the front row, when finally, on lap 142, Choquette hugged the low groove to make the final pass for the lead. The Loxahatchee, Florida-native pulled out to a comfortable lead, finishing the race over two seconds ahead of Lawler.
“Racing with the competition here, guys from across the country, is just great,” said Choquette. “We battled with Ryan Lawler and Kyle Busch and all these great racers, and it made it really tough. We were running with Kyle Busch early in the race and he was able to drive it in deep and drive it off well. He jumped to my outside, and it kind of caught me off guard. That car was fast, but I didn’t know if he was showing his full hand or not. I didn’t know how much he was showing me then, or how hard he was pushing it.
Choquette takes the lead from Ryan Lawler. (51/Jamie Williams photo)
“Running with Ryan was good because our cars were both really close, pretty even the whole afternoon. I heard he had some problems with the motor, so that was probably the difference.”
As he looked over the car going through the technical inspection at the conclusion of the event, Lawler confirmed the motor woes he endured throughout the race.
“It started missing real bad around lap 20 or so, and then we just kept working on it,” said Lawler. “The car was awesome and I think we really could have won this race if we would have had a motor. We were down and on seven cylinders and there wasn’t anything I could do. Whenever Choquette passed me, he pulled out of line in turn two and he’d pull right past me and had me cleared by turn three. It wasn’t but about five or 10 laps before he had a straightaway on me and I’m sure he was just riding then. I was driving the piss out of it and there was nothing I could do.”
Choquette’s 2008 season has kicked off with a bang so far. In addition to winning his South Division qualifier and his first SpeedFest NOS Energy Drink 200, he also won his first event of the year in a dirt late model at the New Hendry County Speedway in Clewiston, Florida in early January.
“We’re actually 3 for 3 this year,” said Choquette. “We ran the dirt race about a week or so ago and won that, and now winning here at SpeedFest. Wow, it’s just big and brings us a lot of momentum for the rest of the season.”
SPEEDFEST "TRACKSIDE NOW" COVERAGE
Choquette is on a roll on dirt and asphalt . (51/Jamie Williams photo)