THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP CRUSADE
Peerless Potential: Pulliam, McCaskill authoring storybook season – JW Martin
In his 22-year racing career, Deac McCaskill had never done this.
The sun was coming up outside his Radford, Va., hotel, and a restless McCaskill was rising with it. During his brief three-hour respite he had failed to sleep, having remained spellbound by the evening’s events. Earlier that night, McCaskill captured his first-ever NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series victory at Motor Mile Speedway—admittedly one of the biggest wins of his Late Model career.
But McCaskill didn’t have time to dwell on past success. A pair of Late Model races loomed within hours at South Boston Speedway. A distance of 142 miles. Moreover, he was three and-a-half hours from team headquarters in Raleigh, NC. And last night’s winning machine required maintenance.
So shortly after 7:00 AM, McCaskill’s No. 08 Chevrolet went up on jack stands in the parking lot of the Sunoco Truck Stop at the edge of town.
“We had to repair a little bit of damage from the previous night and get the car ready for South Boston. We were pushed on time, and wanted to be prepared when we got there,” explains McCaskill. “It was what we normally do during the week, except we had to do it in about two hours’ worth of time.
“It was a first in my book. Definitely a memory; something to tell the kids about a long way down the road.”
The pit stop was evidence of a race that was well underway. It’s a race that transcends the four local features McCaskill entered during that whirlwind weekend. It’s a race that McCaskill had never expected to compete in…and a race he now has a chance to win.
This is the race for the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national championship.
It’s just after 5:30 AM when Lee Pulliam’s transporter lurches to a stop at Pulliam Motorsports’ command post in Semora, NC. The team had been traveling nonstop since post-race inspection concluded at Motor Mile Speedway earlier that morning.
The evening’s events had not gone according to plan for team No. 1. Eyeing a potential sweep of the two Late Model contests, Pulliam was confronted on a late-race restart by an aggressive challenge for first.
The 125-lap nightcap had national championship implications, as Pulliam was not only protecting his lead on the track, but also in the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national standings.
But following a spirited assault for the lead, Deac McCaskill wrestled the win away.
Lately, the hostile on-track treatment has been occurring more frequently from an array of drivers aiming to unseat the defending national champion.
It was the first such altercation with McCaskill. And Pulliam wasn’t pleased.
“It comes with the territory. It’s probably the least-fun thing of the whole deal. It’s pretty stressful,” says Pulliam. “The last thing you want to do is leave the race track angry at somebody. We had people angry at us, and we were angry at other people, and that ain’t a lot of fun.”
Mired in the middle of a relentless schedule, Pulliam had no time to stew. A pair of redemption races awaited later that day, slated at South Boston Speedway.
Following a fleeting two hours of sleep, Pulliam and team No. 1 were back in the shop wrenching on the race car. In a matter of hours, they were back on the road.
“It was mind-boggling. We pulled into the race track 2:00 minutes before practice started at South Boston. We worked on the car and made some gains in practice, and we were able to pull off two wins. It was pretty special,” Pulliam recalls. “Needless to say, we did some recuperating that Sunday.”
For Pulliam, the toilsome summertime schedule has become commonplace. It’s a necessary component of a race afforded to few. It’s a race Pulliam has excelled in for three seasons, and a race he can clinch for the second consecutive year…
The race for the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national championship.
With less than one month remaining before the checkered flag falls on the 2013 season, the national championship race is beginning to climax, with two Late Model stalwarts in the spotlight.
Lee Pulliam is the favorite. The 2012 national titlist currently maintains a 32-point advantage in defense of his crown.
In just four short seasons of NASCAR Late Model competition, The 25 year-old leadfoot has amassed a staggering resume. It beams of success: Over 60 NASCAR Late Model feature victories, including the prestigious Martinsville Speedway Late Model classic (2011). He holds track titles at Motor Mile Speedway (2011) and South Boston Speedway (2013).
His atypical ascension to Late Model stardom has been record-setting. Foremost among his historic accomplishments: the 2012 national title.
Sidelined for the opening two months of the 2012 season by a suspension that threatened to thwart his championship hopes, Pulliam overcame adversity, orchestrating an improbable rally to win the title by 46 markers over Keith Rocco of Connecticut.
“Last year, we had an uphill battle getting [the points lead], but once we got there we had a pretty commanding lead,” says Pulliam.
“This year, we have to win races; there’s no other way about it.”
For Pulliam to win, he’ll have to beat Deac McCaskill…on the track.
The unpretentious, 35 year-old journeyman driver from Raleigh, NC, stands at the crest of a colorful career. It began in the mid-90’s, shadowing some of the most revered surnames in local racing at Orange County Speedway: Beggarly, Blankenship, and Patterson. Subsequent Late Model championships at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, NC, cemented his name among the Carolinas’ local racing elite.
In 2012, McCaskill enjoyed his most dominating season to date, notching a career season-high 17 wins at Southern National Motorsports Park en-route to his third track title. The exceptional record earned McCaskill the 2012 NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series North Carolina State Championship. In the national standings, McCaskill placed eighth overall.
“I didn’t think I’d have another season like that,” reflects McCaskill. “But this season I feel like is on the way to being a little bit bigger.”
Venturing outside his traditional Carolina comfort zone, McCaskill has relished in his newfound success, particularly at Motor Mile Speedway, where he had yet to complete a competitive lap until this season.
The approach has reaped results McCaskill couldn’t have fathomed at the beginning of 2013. He’s been scored second in the national standings since the outset, and remains within reach of the top spot.
“I feel like we’ve reached our goal, and now we’re just riding the wave and having fun,” McCaskill says. “I don’t have any pressure on me trying to go after this national title. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.
“My goal this year was to be in the top three in the nation and win the state [championship], and I feel like we’ve reached that. Then again, you get so close to winning the national title you don’t want to give up on it. And we’re not giving up on it. We’re going after it, but I’m not going to be disappointed if we don’t win it.”
The two Late Model heavyweights are each charting a path unparalleled. Having already sewn up the South Boston Speedway track title, Pulliam could become the first driver ever to notch track titles at South Boston Speedway and Motor Mile Speedway in the same season. Although unverified, it is believed the achievement would be unrivaled in the history of the two venerable short tracks.
Pulliam is a mere 14 points behind 2005 national champion Peyton Sellers in the Motor Mile Speedway track standings.
McCaskill has the opportunity to achieve the same feat. While boasting a commanding 51-point lead in the Southern National Motorsports Park track standings, McCaskill is only 36 points shy of first in the Motor Mile Speedway points race.
No racer has ever accomplished track titles at Southern National Motorsports Park and Motor Mile Speedway in a single season.
Aside from track championship pursuits, Pulliam and McCaskill are nearly deadlocked atop the point standings of the inaugural “Dirty Dozen”— a special points championship hosted by Motor Mile Speedway and Southern National Motorsports Park that sports a $10,000 points fund.
Pulliam is edging out McCaskill in that contest by a slight 2-point margin.
On the national stage, Pulliam and McCaskill are flashing past an old benchmark. In the history of the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series, it marks the first time since 1993 that the championship will have been decided between the top two drivers in the nation after competing weekly in the same asphalt Late Model races.
Peerless potential. Sum it up, and they’re on the brink of the extraordinary.
“It’s a lot to take in. A lot of championships are on the line, and if it could all be accomplished by one person that would be really special. If I get it or Lee gets it—it’d be a monumental season,” says McCaskill.
The deciding factor in the outcome of the 2013 national championship race will be the schedule. Nine races remain at the three short tracks most likely to host the two national championship contenders. Three races at Motor Mile Speedway –including a $10,000 to win feature on September 7th – and two races at South Boston Speedway appear to favor Pulliam. However, the four races left on the docket at Southern National Motorsports Park are most advantageous to McCaskill.
Points accrued from car counts will dictate the outcome, with the big-money race at Motor Mile Speedway providing the most promising reward, in more ways than one.
It’s an equal-opportunity schedule. Pulliam suggests there’s parity in the pressure, too.
“I think there’s an equal amount of pressure on us both. He’s gunning for his first one; he’s never been able to accomplish that in his Late Model career. You just never know if you’re going to get another opportunity to do that again,” explains Pulliam. “Then I think we have a lot of pressure as being the defending champion. Winning a lot of races this year…we don’t want to let it slip away, because it’s far from over.”
Brimming with optimism, McCaskill has embraced his role as the challenger. The savvy, soft-spoken veteran is the consummate underdog.
“We’re a small, family-knit team. Me and Dad work on [the race car] at nighttime, and we have family members who voluntarily help us on the weekends,” says McCaskill. “This is not a full-time gig. It’s something we do for fun, because we love racing.
“I feel like this is David v. Goliath,” McCaskill continues. “Not taking anything away from Lee Pulliam—he’s a heckuva race car driver. But that’s what he does all day; he works on cars and keeps them up. That’s how he makes a living. I’m just not able to do that. And I feel like it puts me behind.
“For every short track racer who works their 9-to-5 job and gets home and works ‘till midnight on their race car— this season is definitely dedicated to those people, because I’m one of them.”
Meanwhile, the slog continues. They’ll be touring the southwest Virginia short tracks this weekend. Friday night: Motor Mile Speedway. Saturday night: South Boston Speedway.
More impromptu sunrise garage sessions. More redeye hauls and hasty cat-naps. It’s a routine fueled by unbridled passion and an insatiable desire to be the best— all in an effort to win the biggest race of NASCAR’s grassroots division.
Some would say they’re foolish. Others would call them crazy.
At the conclusion of the 2013 season, one will be called a national champion.