He clinched the championship with a month remaining in the season, but that didn’t make the news Wednesday any less sweet.
For Keith Rocco, the 2010 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion, it’s been a culmination of a lot of long nights in the shop and a number of near-misses over the previous seasons.
“It’s just been a dream season,” Rocco said. “It’s something you don’t think is possible. It has set in, but at the same time, I haven’t even had a chance to sit down and think about everything.”
The 25-year-old from Wallingford, Conn., won 21 times and had 39 top fives and 50 top 10s in 53 starts in the Modified division at three asphalt ovals in Connecticut: Thompson International Speedway, Stafford Motor Speedway and Waterford Speedbowl.
He become the second Connecticut driver and the third asphalt Modified driver to claim NASCAR’s top short-track racing honor.
“After coming so close, it’s such a relief,” said Rocco, who finished fourth, fourth and second, respectively, in each of the last three years. “There are some huge names on that list of national champions. And to be put on that list and be one of those guys, that’s something that can only happen once in a lifetime.”
Nineteen of Rocco’s wins have come with a maximum 20-car field, which gave him the maximum number of points a driver can accumulate at 810.
The last drivers to record a similar season under the NASCAR championship format were the Phillips and current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Biffle in 1995. Phillips and Biffle achieved the maximum points under the system at the time; Phillips won the crown by virtue of more overall wins (32-27).
Even more impressive, because of the handicapping system at the tracks he races, Rocco routinely starts back in the pack and must sprint to the front. He has already clinched the Stafford track title and can wrap up the Waterford championship in the coming weeks.
A driver’s best 18 results through Sunday, Sept. 19 counted toward their state and national points totals, and the champions are decided on overall points total. The final points standings of the season were released Wednesday.
Rocco’s official coronation as national champion will take place on Friday, Dec. 10 at the 2010 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet at the Charlotte Convention Center's Crown Ballroom in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“It’s something that’s never been done before,” Rocco said. “To be the first champion crowned at the NASCAR Hall of Fame; it brings a smile to my face.”
Rocco will be joined on stage at the awards banquet by runner-up Craig Preble of Yutan, Neb., and third-place Duane Howard of Oley, Penn.
The 43-year-old Preble led the nation in wins with 22. He also recorded 37 top fives and 37 top 10s in 38 starts. He won the crate dirt Late Model division championship at I-80 Speedway in Omaha, Neb., and finished third at Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Neb.
“We had a great season,” Preble said. “We just kept rolling all year. After the good start we had, we just did the same thing week in and week out.”
Preble initially didn’t intend to run on a weekly basis. But with seven wins by the end of May, the decision was made to change the season’s focus. Running for car owner Dave Doll and primary sponsor Double D Excavating, Preble never slowed down. He credited the late hours put in by crew chief Bob Ward for keeping the team on track.
“I surrounded myself with great guys and a great car owner and everything worked out,” Preble said. “It’s a pretty major accomplishment.”
Howard had nearly an exact opposite run.
The highlights for the 47-year-old through the first seven races in the 385 Modified Division on the dirt at Grandview Speedway in Bechtesville, Penn., were limited to three runner-up finishes. But starting with his first win on May 29, Howard rattled off a string of eight wins and five seconds in the 13-race stretch that pushed the BPG Racing team into national contention.
“It’s been a really, really good year; it’s just incredible what this team could do,” Howard said. “The competition we race against weekly has pushed this team to be really successful. We found it and it just really never left all season. We just had an outstanding Troyer race car all year long.”
In addition to the top three finishers, track and U.S. state and Canadian provincial champions will also be among those honored at the awards banquet. Crowning of state champions continues a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of NASCAR.
Justin Johnson, who finished fourth in the nation, successfully defended his asphalt Late Model championship at South Boston Speedway and was able to claim the Virginia state title. The 23-year-old Johnson, from Durham, N.C., had 12 wins, 19 top fives and 24 top 10s for 724 points. He narrowly beat out CE Falk, who finished fifth in the nation with 10 wins, 21 top fives and 28 top 10s in 30 starts for 724 points.
Falk had a chance to pass Johnson if he had won this past Saturday at Old Dominion Raceway in Manassas, Va., but finished third.
Ted Christopher of Plainville, Conn., won the track championship at Thompson and finished sixth in the nation. Three-time national champion Philip Morris, of Ruckersville, Va., finished seventh. Bill Leighton Jr., the track champion at I-80 Speedway, was eighth, followed by Greg Edwards of Langley Speedway, and Matt Buller. Buller raced against Preble and Leighton at the two Nebraska dirt tracks.
Prior to Rocco, Christopher was the last Connecticut driver to win the national championship in 2001. Christopher and Peter Daniels of Lebanon, N.H. (2001) are the only two other asphalt Modified drivers to win the title.
Rocco said adding to the prestige of winning the championship was being able to do it so close to the headquarters of series sponsor Whelen Engineering, which is based in Chester, Conn.
“I think the great thing is we did it in Whelen Engineering’s backyard,” said Rocco, who will be presented the championship trophy at the banquet by Phil Kurze, vice president of motorsports for Whelen.
Rocco, who works at Petit Race Engines during the day, also worked each night on his three cars during the season. The Thompson and Waterford cars are owned by Mark Pane and house in New Milford, Conn., while the Stafford car is owned by John Rufrano and kept at Rocco’s parents’ house in Wallingford.
Rocco’s sponsors included Wheelers Auto in Hamden, Conn.; M&M Stone Creations in New Milford; D&G Paving in Meriden, Conn.; Vasel Bros. Construction in Berlin; C&M Maintenance in Summerset, Mass.; Wilton Painting LLC; and Petit Racing Engines.
“When you surround yourself with great people, you get great results,” Rocco said. “And that’s what we did this year.”
By virtue of his national championship, Rocco also secured a spot in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series postseason race in January that has earned the title as the 'Daytona 500 of short-track racing.'
Under the points structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner received two points for every car in the event up to 20. Second place received two fewer points, and so-on through the field. Race winners received an additional five bonus points. For example, if there are 20 cars, the winner received 45 points, second gets 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner received 35 points, second gets 28 and third, 26.
National Top 500 NASCAR Points Leaders
Pos Driver Track
1 Keith Rocco Waterford Speedbowl
2 Craig Preble I-80 Speedway
3 Duane Howard Grandview Speedway
4 Justin T Johnson South Boston Speedway
5 C E Falk, Iii Langley Speedway
6 Ted Christopher Thompson Intl Speedway
7 Philip Morris South Boston Speedway
8 Bill Leighton, Jr I-80 Speedway
9 Greg Edwards Langley Speedway
10 Matt Buller I-80 Speedway
11 Woody Pitkat Stafford Motor Speedway
12 Ron Sheridan Delaware Speedway
13 Pat Doar Cedar Lake Speedway
14 Ron Yuhas, Jr Waterford Speedbowl
15 J Herbst Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway
16 Chad Mahder--R Cedar Lake Speedway
17 Brandon Dean Motor Mile Speedway
18 Shawn Pfaff Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway
19 Craig Von Dohren Grandview Speedway
20 Justin A Johnson Toyota Speedway At Irwindale
21 Woody Howard Langley Speedway
22 Marty Ward Greenville-Pickens Speedway
23 Burt Myers Bowman Gray Stadium
24 Steve Carlson Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway
25 Rob Janovic, Jr Waterford Speedbowl