CHAMPION CLOSE-UPS: PART 2
Revisiting Motor Mile Speedway’s championship campaigns – JW Martin
The “Championship Close-Ups” series concludes with a look back at a pair of nail-biting championship battles in the Carpet Factory Outlet Street Stock division and the UCAR class, while an unexpected illness to a championship contender in the New River Nissan MOD-4 division became the feel-good story of the 2015 season.
“Champion Close-Ups: Part 2” spotlights the track titles of Scooter Hollandsworth, Doodle Lang and Ricky Howell, Jr.
There is no skin left on Scooter Hollandsworth’s teeth.
Battling back from the brink in a frenzied 30-lap season finale, Hollandsworth overcame on-track adversity and a four-point deficit in the standings to capture his third consecutive Carpet Factory Outlet Street Stock division track championship on September 12th.
Just business-as-usual for Hollandsworth, who is accustomed to championship racing on the razor’s edge.
Hollandsworth’s three-year reign has been sustained by a combined margin of just 10 points. In 2013, Hollandsworth snared his first-ever Street Stock crown by four markers over Jessica Harman. A scant two-point triumph over Chad Conner earned Hollandsworth his second consecutive track title in 2014. This season, Hollandsworth bested Doug Williams by four points to claim his newly-minted track championship.
The miniscule overall total is a Motor Mile Speedway-era record spanning all divisions. Call it clutch. Or is it luck?
“I’d say it’s a little bit of both,” Hollandsworth says. “That’s a pretty small margin of error going into the last race, any way you look at it. It’s definitely a competitive division.”
Since the restructuring of the schedule format in 2012, the Street Stock division has consistently produced the most competitive racing at the .416-mile oval. During this span, Barry Gregory’s 14-point margin of victory in the 2012 track standings was the largest winning margin for a Street Stock track champion—less than half of the largest points differential of any other division during the same timeframe. Furthermore, the division featured four different winners for the second straight season; the Collision Plus Limited Sportsman division is the only class to boast a more diverse total in 2015.
The unparalleled parity showcased in the Street Stock division adds to the significance of Hollandsworth’s championship streak. Not to mention, the two-time defending track champion was the underdog this season.
Hollandsworth trailed Newcastle, Va., wheelman Doug Williams by 10 markers following the first two outings of the season. Hollandsworth rebounded from the modest start to visit victory lane on June 28th, concurrently claiming the division points lead. But his tenure at the pinnacle of the division standings was fleeting. One race later, the pair deadlocked atop the standings, and following the twinbill event on August 8th, Williams had regained control of the top spot.
The mid-summer struggle was attributable in part to a test-session crash that occurred on August 5th. The damage relegated Hollandsworth to a backup car for the double feature on August 8th, as well as the penultimate race of the year on August 22nd. The upheaval resulted in a four-point deficit entering championship night, with Hollandsworth returning to the cockpit of his primary entry for the 30-lap, winner-take-all shootout.
For Hollandsworth, the season finale appeared at first to be a predictable rout. But as the climactic championship bout unfolded, it proved to be anything but.
After wrangling the lead away from Williams at the outset of the feature, Hollandsworth was coasting with the lead when contact from a hard-charging Matthew Gusler sent Hollandsworth’s no. 16 skating up the turn one banking on lap eight.
“We locked eyes as he was sliding in towards me, and I think both of us were in sheer shock. Not in a million years would I have thought that we would’ve hit that way, especially in that moment with so much on the line,” chuckles Hollandsworth. “It was completely my fault; I couldn’t be too mad.”’
Championship chances were restored when Williams was involved in a near-identical collision at the entrance of turn one on the ensuing restart. The caution staged a white-knuckle scramble for the track title as the two championship contenders rallied from the rear of the field when racing resumed on lap nine.
Hollandsworth eclipsed Gusler for the lead on lap 22, while Williams’ advancements were stymied by Casey Cupp in the waiting circuits. Hollandsworth flashed by the flagstand first as the checkers unfurled, netting his third win of the season and the third track championship of his Street Stock career.
“There were so many highs and lows throughout the year. The championship was almost unattainable at several points during the season, and then it kind of fell into my lap,” Hollandsworth explains. “It’s weird how this [championship] compares to the others… it’s special.”
It was an historic homecoming for the affable Roanoke, Va., racer. After forgoing the entire 2014 season, Lang returned to author the best performance of his five-year career in the New River Nissan MOD-4 division. He dominated the eight-race season, amassing six victories -a single-season career-high- supplemented by a pair of runner-up showings. Lang’s staggering 1.25 average finish was surpassed only by Lee Pulliam’s 2015 Late Model record. The six-win season was the most convincing MOD-4 championship campaign in five years.
Lang concluded the 2015 season on a five-race winning streak, coasting to his first-career Motor Mile Speedway track championship by a margin of 26 points over 2013 track titlist Chucky Williams. A colossal 92-point differential from Lang to third-place finisher Drew Holdren marked the biggest disparity among the top three finishers in the MOD-4 division standings since 2005.
“To come in and have the year we were hoping to have, and to finally win the championship, it really means a lot,” says Lang, who has compiled multiple track championships at surrounding facilities, including South Boston Speedway. “I’m pretty humble when it comes to this stuff, but to be as dominant as we were with a new car— it makes you feel good.”
From the outset, it was an epic see-saw struggle for supremacy in the MOD-4 division standings. Lang began the season as the points leader by virtue of a victory lane appearance on May 2nd. Williams scored his first checkered flag of the season one race later, following a memorable white-knuckle showdown with Lang that climaxed in a .005 photo-finish at the stripe. It was to be the defining race of the year in the MOD-4 division, and a harbinger of the championship battle to come.
Williams edged Lang for the top spot in the standings on June 28th, but his reign atop the division was curtailed by Lang’s third win of the season on August 8th. Having been deadlocked twice atop the standings, Lang managed to distance himself from Williams by four markers over the next two races. Astoundingly, the championship duo had occupied the top two positions in every divisional race preceding the season finale on September 12th.
Throughout the season, it was the drivers’ showmanship that had garnered all of the attention. But on the final Saturday night of the season, sportsmanship was in the spotlight.
“This year was our 20th year in racing, and Chucky is the only person we’ve raced against that I’ve remained friends with. It tickles me to death that we can go finish three inches apart and laugh about it and pick at each other,” explains Lang, reflecting on Williams’ absence in the division’s final race. “We’re friends. When he told me on Friday they were not going to let him race, I was bummed. I wanted him to be there… I wanted it to come down to the best man in the last race.”
Following a hospital stay, Williams’ physician prohibited him from competing due to illness the day before the season finale, relegating him to the role of spectator. Although unable to drive, Williams still took the high road.
As the championship celebration commenced, Williams was among the first to greet Lang in victory lane. It was a profoundly poignant conclusion to one of the most unique championship contests in recent memory at the .416-mile oval— championship photos of that moment are evidence that some victories are rewarded with much more than a trophy.
It had been nine years since Motor Mile Speedway hosted a points championship for the UCAR division.
It was worth the wait.
The UCAR division featured the closest championship battle spanning all classes in 2015, with division mainstays Ricky Howell, Jr. and Rodney Howell clashing in a title bout that remained undecided until the final checkered flag unfurled.
Rodney Howell appeared to be the favorite for the title through the majority of the season, notching four consecutive podium finishes, including a win in the season opener. The Radford, Va., veteran possessed the points lead until August 22nd, when the no. 1 team’s first setback of the season resulted in a dismal eighth-place finish.
Meanwhile, Ricky Howell, Jr., acclimating to a brand-new no. 18 entry, was quietly improving. Howell posted four straight top-two finishes through the mid-summer portion of the season, including back-to-back wins in the month of August. His second consecutive victory on August 22nd vaulted the no. 18 team to the top of the standings. With one race remaining, Howell would not relinquish the lead.
Confronted with an eight-point deficit on championship night, Rodney Howell needed to finish five positions ahead of his title counterpart to send the championship battle into a tie-breaker, a scenario that favored the no. 1 team.
Rodney Howell scripted a perfect performance, winning the season finale convincingly. But his best wasn’t good enough. Embroiled in a battle with Ryan Cox and Chad Ricker in the waning circuits, Ricky Howell, Jr. survived to place fourth, earning the Christiansburg, Va., native his first-ever Motor Mile Speedway track championship by a mere two points— the equivalent of one position on the track.
A fixture at the New River Valley facility for 10 years, it was a well-deserved accolade for a perennial UCAR contender. Howell has notched at least one victory every year dating back to 2007, but the division was devoid of a points system to recognize and reward success. A two-win season propelled Howell to the biggest victory of his career in 2015— validating the performances of seasons past.
“It means a lot to me, because it’s something you can’t take back.” says Howell, who became the first track champion of the division since Scooter Hollandsworth in 2006. “I’m not the type of person that boasts, but if we would’ve had [points the past few seasons], there’s no telling how many championships I would’ve won. To win this championship, it’s big.”