A decade after battling each other in the Late Model Stock division at Concord [N.C.] Speedway, Clay Rogers and J.P. Morgan are squaring off against one another for the 2009 USARacing Pro Cup Series championship.
Heading into Saturday's season finale at South Boston [Va.] Speedway, Rogers, a Troutman, N.C., resident possesses a 43-point advantage over Morgan of Ether, N.C. Drew Herring, from Benson, N.C., is third, 85 points out of the lead, while Brandon Ward, of Winston-Salem, N.C., is 93 points back. Bobby Gill, a Concord, N.C., resident, trails by 95 points.
“It's really Clay's deal to lose,” Morgan said about the championship. “He's got a pretty good cushion. If he gets any of the bonus points, that is one more spot I have to obtain.”
Vying for a championship isn't new territory for either driver. Rogers already owns two Pro Cup titles, emerging as the series champion in 2004 and 2006. Morgan won the Stock Car Championship Series and was the 2003 Road Course National Champion. However, in this year's 14-race USAR Pro Cup Series, Rogers has been a victory contender from the season's beginning while Morgan has come on strong in the four-race Championship Series.
This year, Rogers has collected five victories, including two in the Championship Series, nine top-5s and 11 top-10s. He also walked off with the WIX Challenge Award at Rockingham [N.C.] Speedway earlier this month when he won the pole and the race, collecting a $15,000 bonus. Coupled with the race's purse, Rogers took home $24,017, the second largest payday in the series history. The WIX Challenge Award now stands at $5,000 for Saturday's Strutmasters.com 250.
Morgan was sixth in the standings when the Championship Series began Sept. 5 at Concord Speedway. He jumped to fourth with his fourth-place finish in that race, then slid into third with his first-ever series victory at Iowa Speedway on Sept. 19. He took over second with a fourth-place finish at the Oct. 10 Rockingham event. For the season, Morgan now owns one victory, seven top-5s and eight top-10s.
“Clay has been one of my friends since I started racing,” the 33-year-old Morgan said. “Running against him for a championship is really a cool deal. I'm sure we'll talk about it after it's all said and done.”
Morgan, who was scheduled to test at the four-tenths-mile South Boston oval on Monday, knows he must win the race and acquire as many bonus points as possible if he hopes to defeat Rogers for the title.
“When I ran for the championship in road course racing we were in the position Clay's in going into that title race,” Morgan recalled. “However, it was a little different situation. In that race, we had to make sure we didn't run off the track and we had to stay in the top three. It's almost easier this time because there is no defense on our part. It's all offense.”
Rogers admits that if he and his team produce a sub-par weekend, Morgan is definitely a threat to steal the title from him.
“His team has come on (strong) in the last four months,” the 28-year-old Rogers continued. “They unload fast everywhere they go.”
Rogers said he wasn't concerned about Morgan's on-track tactics.
“He [Morgan] is always a class act,” he added.
Still, Rogers is a little edgy about the season finale at the South Boston track because “the straightaways are so narrow that if things happen, there's not a lot of places to go.”
“A lot of people like the race track, but to me it would be like ending the [NASCAR Chase] championship series at Martinsville [Va.] or Talladega [Ala.],” Rogers said.
Contending for the championship isn't the only item consuming the two men's time. Morgan is getting married one week after the Oct. 31 season finale on Nov. 7. Rogers and his wife, Cheryl, are expecting their first child – a daughter – two weeks after the title run on Nov. 14.
“I'm dealing with the pressure a little better (this time than in previous championship races),” said Rogers, who's scheduled to test Thursday at South Boston Speedway. “I've got a lot of other things going on to occupy my time. We're working on building a race car for the Snowball Derby, which is the first weekend in December. The baby's room is finished, so we're preparing for the arrival.
“I'm trying to treat it [South Boston] just like another race. It's always a big deal, but I'm trying to take it more in stride. The week before the last race when I was going for my first championship, I threw up every morning. I don't have near the butterflies now. I guess that comes with experience.”
Rogers would like for his wife to be able to attend the race, but he thinks it's better for her to remain close to her doctors in Mooresville, N.C., in case she goes into labor.
“The good thing is we're not going to Iowa (for the final race),” Rogers said. “If something happens, I'm an hour and 45 minutes from the house. She has been following the races on the Internet and she'll call A.J. Frank's wife and talk with her constantly. If there is a caution, they give her a quick call and update her on what is going on.”
Morgan's father attends every race, but he has a few more family members planning to travel to South Boston, as does some of his crew.
“A lot of people are just now finding out that we're this close in the points,” Morgan said. “I'm hearing from people every day.”
Morgan is competing for the championship in only his second full season in the USAR Pro Cup Series.
“It's been a big learning curve for us and getting that consistency that it takes to make the points,” Morgan said. “I think we've done a great job of not having mechanical failures and things of that nature. We're right there, but if one thing happens to any of us, there are guys sitting on the fence waiting to take the position from you. Drew (Herring) and Brandon (Ward), and Bobby (Gill) is right there, too. Bobby has come back from having a bad start to the season. It will be an exciting race for all of the teams.”
USAR Pro Cup action begins Friday, Oct. 30, at South Boston with practice and qualifying. Practice is scheduled from noon until 2 p.m., with qualifying set for 4:30 p.m. Also scheduled on Friday is the 2009 USARacing BF Goodrich Pit Crew Challenge, which will get underway at 5:30 p.m. Grandstands will be open Friday to the public free of charge.
Advance tickets for the two feature races on Saturday, Oct. 31, are $15 each. The ticket price will increase to $20 on race day. Tickets can be ordered by contacting the track office at (434) 572-4947 or at the speedway office.
A Halloween Costume Contest, which will pay $500 to the winner, will be held as part of the Oct. 31 festivities. Fans also will be able to head trackside prior to the racing action for a Fan Appreciation Session. The Halloween Costume Contest will begin at 1:15 p.m. and will be preceded by the Fan Appreciation Session, which will begin at 12:30 p.m.
Grandstand gates will open Oct. 31 at 11 a.m. and hayrides for all ages will be held from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Qualifying for the Limited Sportsman 100-lap race will be held on Saturday at noon, shortly after a practice session that will run from 10-11:15 a.m.
The USARacing Pro Cup Series, formerly Hooters Pro Cup, is owned by Interstate Investment Group and is based in Concord, N.C. IIG is comprised of Jack McNelly, Gary Kale, Carl Hubbard, Chip Lofton and Larry Camp, who serves as the managing partner. For more information on the USARacing Pro Cup Series, go to www.usarprocup.com.