Clay Rogers celebrates the 2004 championship. Yes, the check says$200,000.
The dominant topic among the motorsports press in 2004 seemed to havebeen the Nextel Cup "Chase for the Championship." The playoff systememployed by NASCAR had its supporters and its opponents, but it also hada predecessor of sorts.
The United Speed Alliance Racing series (USAR), the sanctioning body forthe Hooters ProCup Series, has employed a variation of this idea and ithas worked well. There was no better example of its success than the2004 season.
In a nutshell, here's how it works. The series is divided into twodivisions, north and south. Competitors select a region in which tocompete for a points title. At the end of 13 races in the southerndivision and 12 races in the northern division, the top 30 are invitedinto the five-race championship series. This year, both series competingin 12 races since a September race in Florida was victimized by ahurricane and not rescheduled.
The five races were split up between divisions. The north divisionhosted three while the south division was the battleground for theremaining two.
Performance during the regular season is one key to success in thechampionship series. Your ranking at the end of the regular season leadsto a certain number of championship points. Consequently, the divisionchampions enter the playoff with the most points, leaving the rest tocontinue to chase the same guy. Now, however, there are two of them andyou are tied with your counterpart in the opposite division.
Rogers win in the fourth championship event, held at Motor Mile (VA)Speedway, put him back
The stage for the playoffs was set with strong seasons by southerndivision champion Clay Rogers and northern division titlist BennyGordon. Rogers was hot right out of the gate, winning the first seriesevent in February and racking up seven straight top-10 finishes. In thatstring, five finishes were no worse than second as Rogers backed up theFebruary USA International (FL) Speedway win with a win at Ace (NC)Speedway. As the season progressed, Rogers won again at Hickory (NC)Motor Speedway, his 10th career win in 83 races. It was also his fourthpole of the season. Rogers never trailed in the southern division pointstandings.
Gordon's run to the top was very different. He finished outside thetop-10 in each of the first two races and stood 14th in points. Hebanged home 11 straight top-10s with only two of those outside the topfive. One of the races didn't help his point standings, though. Therules say a driver competing in one division can compete at up to fiveraces in the other division. Gordon won a southern division race atMyrtle Beach (SC) in the middle of his charge to the top of the northerndivision standings. After his Myrtle Beach win, Gordon finished secondat Kil-Kare (OH) Speedway and reeled off three straight wins, earningthe top spot three races before the northern division wrapped up.
Gordon and Rogers were the odds on favorites to win the title, but therewere no fewer than a dozen drivers who could have easily played spoiler.Gordon had a disappointing 20th in the first championship event atJennerstown (PA) and Rogers came home third. It tightened the pointsrace as 2003 champion Shane Huffman, winner at Jennerstown, displacedGordon, who slipped to fifth. For the second championship event, Rogers'misfortune at Ohio's Mansfield Motorsports Speedway rose up again,leaving him with a 29th place run and, for the first time in 2004,Rogers was not the point leader. Gordon won the race, but it wasn'tenough to get him back onto the top of the heap. Huffman, who ralliedback from an early race crash, finished sixth and took over the pointlead with Bobby Gill, who finished second. It would be the last time adivision leader wasn't atop the standings.
Gordon backed up his Mansfield win by coming home first again at MyrtleBeach, capturing the point lead and setting into position for apotential bonus. Drivers can pick up additional cash by winning three,four, or five of the championship races. Huffman gained the bonus in2003 and Gordon could do it with a win at either Motor Mile (VA)Speedway or USA International (FL) Speedway. Rogers finished fifth atMyrtle Beach in a race that saw attrition play a big role. That finishvaulted him to second behind Gordon. Gill was 24th and Huffman was 17thand each slid in the point standings.
A November Motor Mile event saw Rogers dominate and step up for hisfirst championship series win in 2004, but Gordon's third place kept himon top. It came down to one race to decide the championship. That racewas the longest distance race, a 300-lapper around the USA International(FL) Speedway _-mile track.
Each of the first four races was a tribute to the four men who wereconnected with series sponsor Hooters that died in an April 1, 1993plane crash near Bristol, Tennessee. These events were dedicated to thememory of Charlie Campbell, Dan Duncan, Mark Brooks (son of Hootersfounder Bob Brooks), and 1992 NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki. The fifthevent honored the men collectively.
Race day in late November brought racetime rain and the event wasdelayed until nearly midnight. Organizers were committed to completingthe season on that night. Even though the race finished at 3 a.m., thedrama far outweighed the hour.
Rogers ended up winning the war without winning the battle. Despite aproblem that put him a lap down, Rogers battled back (without the helpof a "Lucky Dog" rule) to get back on the lead lap. As Rogers began tomove to the front, Gordon slowed and pitted. A broken bracket caused thebelts to come off and Gordon spent many laps on pit road. When he didreturn to the track, the engine expired. Rogers needed a top finish totake the title away.
In the late stages, it became apparent Rogers would have enough to winthe title, but the battle for the race capped the season in grandfashion. Veterans Jay Fogleman and Bobby Gill engaged in a full-contactbattle that tested their respective racing abilities with the leadswapping hands no less than six times in the last 10 laps. Fogleman ranout of gas on the last lap, but Gill was prepared for a last turndefense that was never needed. Gill scored his 10th USA InternationalProCup win in 21 races at the track and his 39th series victory, bothrecords.
On the strength of his fourth place finish, Rogers will carry the mantelof champion for the series, getting the word from series official FritzAugustine during the cooldown laps. It was the culmination of a greatseason.
Rogers (44) leads northern division competitor Glenn Gault (32).
In the end, Rogers assessed the championship from the point of that lastrace. "It was the most mentally challenging thing," he remembers. "Wehad problems right from the get go with the clutch. I really wasn't surewe had done it until I heard Fritz tell me. Once I heard that, it was arelief. I probably gave one of my worst interviews afterward because ofhow I was feeling."
The day didn't hold much promise. The team had a nearly complete racecar on standby if there were problems, but series rules don't allowteams to make changes once the car is qualified.
"It started when we came in from qualifying. I pushed the clutch to stopand it was very soft. I pumped the pedal and thought maybe it would bealright."
The problem would surface after a pit stop during the race, but itturned out only to heighten the drama. "I knew this championship wasours to win," Rogers adds. "We went out there set to kill. I needed tostay calm. I knew we had good enough stuff to do it."
When it was over, the right front tire was flat. An inspection of theengine found a broken inner valve spring that held up to the end. It wasclearly meant to be.
"I wouldn't trade this," says Rogers, who competed in his first seriesrace on the very day he graduated high school. "This is for everybodywho stood behind me. We've got our chance to sit at the big table."
They deserved it. The youngest champion in the series history gets toclaim the biggest prize of the year and it was a great ride.