LATE MODEL OUTLOOK
PART 1: A Comprehensive Preview of Motor Mile Speedway’s Top 10 Performers from 2014 – JW Martin
The green flag won’t fall for another month, but the race has already begun.
On May 2nd, a new season of NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series Late Model racing at Motor Mile Speedway begins, and final preparations are underway. As race teams scramble to finalize programs and plans, questions abound: Which teams will be returning? Who will compete full-time? Which drivers will challenge for the championship?
In the frenzied, fluid final days of the Motor Mile Speedway off-season, the top points finishers from 2014 reveal their agendas in a comprehensive compilation of news and notes. It’s the 2015 Motor Mile Speedway Late Model preview.
Points Finish: 1st
Top 5’s: 11
Top 10’s: 11
Since 1988, no Late Model racer has authored a better beginning to his Motor Mile Speedway career than Lee Pulliam. With three Late Model track championships in three full-time seasons, the Semora, NC, driver’s peerless record is unrivaled in the NASCAR-sanctioned era at the Radford oval.
Eyeing his third consecutive track title and fourth overall -which would tie Jeff Agnew for second all-time in the NASCAR era- Pulliam will have an opportunity to continue his unprecedented winning streak this season. Pulliam has committed to running the full schedule at MMS in 2015.
“It’s pretty humbling to be in a category like that. It puts a lot of pressure on us, but that’s how we like it,” says Pulliam of the historic streak. “We plan to be as strong as ever this year at Motor Mile. Last year, a lot of guys were catching up to us. We’re trying to get ahead of the competition again; we’ve been working feverishly to bring home that fourth title and keep the streak going.”
Pulliam’s 2014 Motor Mile Speedway track title was accompanied by a pair of NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series state championships in North Carolina and Virginia. But it’s what the two-time NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series National Champion lost last season that has emboldened him.
Coupled with the MMS schedule, Pulliam will compete regularly at South Boston Speedway in pursuit of his third national championship, one year removed from a poignant 12-point defeat in the national standings.
“The key is going to be starting off on the right foot and get some wins. It’s so tough at the tracks we run to win enough races to do it. On the other hand, if you can win a lot of races, the car counts present a good opportunity,” explains Pulliam.
Pulliam will field two cars out of the Pulliam Motorsports stable at MMS in 2015. Reigning Late Model Rookie of the Year G.R. Waldrop is returning to pilot the no. 01, with Pulliam’s flagship no. 5 still operating under the Kiker Motorsports banner.
By confirming his intentions to run the full schedule, Pulliam vaults to the top of a decorated list of entries vying for the 2015 Motor Mile Speedway track championship. Having amassed a staggering 69% winning percentage with 42 wins in 61 total starts, the defending track champion is the undisputed favorite to claim the crown this season.
“I always enjoy racing at Motor Mile. Some of the toughest competition is there, and that’s where we want to be,” says Pulliam.
Points Finish: 2nd
Points Behind: 8
Top 5’s: 11
Top 10’s: 11
Motor Mile Speedway’s bridesmaid has gotten hitched.
For two seasons, Peyton Sellers has been second best. On the track, he’s posted 10 second-place finishes. In the standings, he’s been the runner-up—twice.
But the new year has afforded new opportunities to the 2005 NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series National Champion. Suitors have been inquiring about his services, and Sellers is making moves.
In 2014, Sellers occupied first place in the track standings through seven of the final eight races of the season. During that span Sellers Racing fielded two different Late Models at MMS for Sellers in a concentrated effort to maintain their grasp on the points lead.
The chassis carousel continued into the off-season, when Sellers accepted an invitation to pilot Aaron Deplazes’ no. 02 at Motor Mile Speedway exclusively in 2015. The arrangement was to be a full-time endeavor, with Sellers vying for the Late Model track championship.
Then, On March 9th, Sellers was offered a seat in the no. 97 Obaika Racing NASCAR XFINITY Series entry for the 200-lap race at Phoenix International Raceway. Sellers competed with the team for a second consecutive race weekend at Auto Club Speedway, and is currently the driver of the no. 97 Obaika Racing team.
Positioned as the most viable threat to sever Lee Pulliam’s stranglehold on the Late Model division crown, a long-term commitment to the NASCAR XFINITY Series would almost assuredly eliminate Sellers from points contention at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015. While Sellers says he is looking forward to returning to Motor Mile Speedway this season, a definite schedule is currently unknown.
“My plans right now are day-by-day,” says Sellers. “I’m happy here driving [the no. 97] car.”
As an organization, Sellers Racing will remain a fixture at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015. Late Model racers Matt Bowling, Tony Keen and newcomer Juan Garcia are all anticipating partial schedules –at minimum– this season, with Limited Sportsman racer Dylan Saul competing full-time in the LS class.
Tommy Lemons, Jr.
Points Finish: 3rd
Points Behind: 68
Top 5’s: 10
Top 10’s: 10
On paper, 2014 marked Tommy Lemons, Jr.’s best career season at Motor Mile Speedway.
On the track, he looked even better.
Lemons placed third in the track standings in 2014, equaling a career-best previously accomplished in 2010 and his rookie campaign of 2007. The 68-point margin marked Lemons ’closest points finish, however, and capped with three victories, 2014 was a statistical best for the Troy, NC, racer.
Lemons accrued seven podium finishes in 12 races, matching the 58% personal benchmark he established in 2012 for single-season top-three performances. But Lemons’ 2014 season will be remembered for his visits to victory lane.
Lemons’ three triumphs were punctuated by a noteworthy commonality: Every time Lemons won, a NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national champion finished second.
In May, Lemons dusted Lee Pulliam by a convincing 1.5-second margin of victory. Lemons bested Pulliam again in a book-end win in September, making history in the interim. On June 28th, Lemons edged Peyton Sellers in an unprecedented photo finish that took track officials five days to finalize.
His local accomplishments were reflected in a tenth-place finish in the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national standings. But despite the success enjoyed a season ago, Lemons is noncommittal on running for a track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015.
“We’re setting out to win races at Motor Mile. If we get to the point where we need to chase the points, we’ll do it. If we have some bad luck to begin with, we might not run every race. It just depends on how it goes… but the plan is to be there for most of the events, if not all,” Lemons reveals.
Initially, the main focus for Lemons in 2015 will be the CARS Tour— formerly the X-1R Pro Cup Series. The venerable stock car association was restructured during the off-season to support a twofold Late Model racing program that will showcase Late Models alongside Super Late Model headliners. Motor Mile Speedway will host the CARS Tour on July 11th.
Entering 2015 with a groundswell of momentum, team no. 27 projects to be among the most formidable threats to unseat Pulliam for the track championship. If Lemons reverts to a partial schedule, however, there is no doubt the part-time competitor will remain a full-time contender.
Points Finish: 4th
Points Behind: 154
Top 5’s: 3
Top 10’s: 8
It went by quicker than a 16-second qualifying lap at Motor Mile Speedway.
2010: the high-water mark of the FDJ Motorsports juggernaut. Brandon Dean, receiving technical support as a satellite FDJM team, edged out the flagship of the FDJM stable, Wayne Ramsey, for the track championship. Rusty Skewes enjoyed a breakthrough season with a seventh-place finish in the standings. Jeff Oleen earned Rookie of the Year honors with a twelfth-place points showing.
Fresh off his 2009 South Boston Speedway Late Model track championship, Justin Johnson, the franchise driver of FDJ Motorsports, recorded three wins –never finishing worse than eighth– in seven starts.
And then it was over.
Johnson’s outings diminished in 2011, competing in just six races as the FDJM partnership dissolved. Then came the hiatus, as the affable Danville, Va., racer fell victim to the fate that befalls so many promising drivers: funding.
2014 signified Johnson’s first season of competition at the New River Valley speedplant since 2011.
“We started with a brand-new car, and we never got happy with it,” explains Johnson. “It was pretty frustrating. We were extremely fast at times -in practice and qualifying- but we never could make it last through a 20-plus lap run. We put a lot of work and effort in, but never could get the car to work like we wanted it to.”
Johnson placed fourth in the track standings despite missing the final two events of the season in what became a rebuilding year for the Puryear Tank Lines race team. Embarking on his second consecutive season back behind the wheel, Johnson is on the cusp of recapturing the success of seasons past.
Currently, Johnson projects a 12-to-15-race schedule that will include dates at South Boston Speedway, Motor Mile Speedway, and a stint in the CARS Tour. Johnson will compete in select races at the .416-mile oval in a partial schedule reminiscent of his 2010 season.
Team no. 44 has outfitted Johnson with a pair of brand-new chassis to replace the primary car he piloted in 2014. Moreover, Johnson has reunited with Frank Deiny, Jr.
“He’s going to help us in the shop, setting up the cars and working on them through the week, and he’s going to be a test dummy with me at the track throughout the year,” Johnson says.
A winning combination, the Deiny-Johnson tandem bolsters a team already trending in a positive direction. Supplemented by the equipment upgrade, Johnson appears poised to return to victory lane in 2015.
“I really wish we would’ve enjoyed those wins a little more. You don’t realize how hard they were to achieve until you’re struggling to finish in the top four or five,” reflects Johnson. “We’re hoping to bounce back this year.”
Next week, motormilespeedway.com previews 2014 points finishers 5-10.
Written opinions are solely those of the writer
Photo Credits: Joe Mills