NASCAR Saturday Goes Into Playoff Mode As Drive For The Cup Begins
By Sam Tully
SEEKONK, Mass. – It feels like about five minutes ago that we were rounding the corner to summer, and with that, the days getting longer and warmer, race cars rolling out from hibernation, and our friendly neighborhood third-mile asphalt oval roaring back to life for another season.
Thirteen race weekends, two rainouts (three… sorry, Pro Stocks), a visit from the Pro All Star Series and a few Thrill Show breaks later, and we are staring down the barrel of the final three race weekends of the year.
But this year, these next three weekends won’t be your average September sprint to crown four champions. Instead, the next three Saturdays will see a battle to survive in the first ever Seekonk Speedway Drive for the Cup presented by Sunoco Race Fuels.
Eight drivers sit atop the points standings in each of our four Saturday divisions, battle-worn after a season-long campaign, proving to their on-track counterparts that they deserve a championship bid.
With the passing of the regular-season finale on August 27, the door has been sealed, the gate has been shut, the plane is rolling down the runway and preparing for departure. Eight drivers will enter, then there will be six, then four, until at last, one driver is crowned track champion.
Buckle up, and please secure all baggage in the overhead compartment. Let’s take a look at our championship contenders.
CHAZ’S AUTO BODY SPORT TRUCKS
The top eight were all but settled when the Chaz’s Auto Body Sport Truck division rolled out for their regular-season finale. Tom Scully III had just an eight point advantage over Jake Vanada for the final playoff spot going into the weekend, and after qualifying efforts, the odds were ever in Vanada’s favor.
Vanada started second and Scully 10th in a 25-lapper that went green-to-checkered, and at the conclusion, Vanada crossed the line third, eight places ahead of Scully in 11th, earning himself more than enough points needed to lock in a championship berth. With bags in hand and the final call to board being made, Vanada sprinted through the gate just in time to take his seat for the drive (flight?) to the cup. Scully will have to wait on standby for another season.
Departing from air travel analogies entirely now, it’s time to get serious about who has what it takes to make it through to championship weekend and race for the cup. The fact of the matter is: they all do.
So, let’s draw from some stats to help paint a picture of which drivers might have momentum on their side and who might need to get hot when it matters most.
Points leader Rick Martin is also the leader in the wins column among the Sport Trucks, notching five of them so far this season. In fact, three of them have come in the last six weeks, taking down the win every other week since July 16. Should this trend hold up, that would mean “The Radical One” is due for his sixth win to start the playoffs.
Barry Shaw shares a couple of stats with Martin: they are both tied for most top-five finishes, at 10 a piece this season. Shaw is also the only other driver in the division to celebrate a win more than once this year, claiming two of his own. Let’s not forget, Shaw is your defending Sport Truck champion from 2021, and could well make it back-to-back championships here in a couple of weeks.
Mike Duarte and Brittany Campbell both joined the win column with one win a piece, yet both made trips to the podium with top-three finishes several times: Duarte with three thirds and two seconds, and Campbell with four seconds and one third. What’s interesting comparing these two, is that although Duarte has three more points on the season than Campbell, Campbell has a stronger average finish - her 4.8 compared to Duarte’s 5.6.
Then you have Mike Cavallaro - the multiple-time division champion who is going to be faced with a whole different animal in the new format to make it another. Speaking of a different animal, Cavallaro has been forced to drive a different-than-planned set of wheels for the back half of this season, following a wreck which nearly totaled his primary ride. Despite the adversity, Cavallaro has dialed in his truck and notched back-to-back fourths in recent weeks, putting himself right back at the top of the pile in time for playoffs.
Darryl Church made it into the win column during the regular season finale, capping a bit of a journey of a regular season on a high note - and what a time to do it. In a format where winning is clearly going to be the best strategy to survive and advance, gearing up to start a little win streak right before playoffs begin is not a bad strategy at all.
Amy Arsenault was the unfortunate victim of an entirely different kind of streak to start this season, dealing with race-ending mechanical failures and incidents for a handful of weeks early on. Since then, it’s been a totally different tale, highlighted by a race win on July 23, and complemented with another top five to boot. Look for Arsenault to continue running clean and green, and adding to those stat totals when it really matters most these next three weeks.
Jake Vanada’s road to the playoffs was surely more eventful than he would have liked. Overcoming both an absence and a disqualification, Vanada’s late season points race drama undermines how strong he and the No. 29 really were at times this season. Though he has not yet won a race, he scored seven top-fives. When you look at his average finish across his twelve races, had he not been stripped of his second place on July 16, his average finish would have been about a 5.2 - fourth best out of the division.
HELGER’S SOUTH COAST POWER EQUIPMENT SPORTSMAN
The Helger’s South Coast power Equipment Sportsmans’ final playoff driver was essentially locked in as soon Tyler Almeida took the green last week, and Steve Axon was absent for a third-straight week.
Now, out of our eight playoff contenders, one of them is unlike the others.
That would be Chad Baxter, who has won seven out of the last eight races. The reigning champion has been on absolute cruise control the last two months. It is hard to imagine Baxter running into any sort of fall off as we approach the business end of the season, but racing is a crazy sport, and anything can happen with this new playoff format.
The next two drivers who can at least hold a candle to Baxter as far as success in the win column are Craig Pianka and Ed Perry. Pianka was the man to beat in May, winning three of four to start the season. Perry was right there going toe-to-toe, sprinkling in two of his own wins in May and June before the Baxter storm came. Pianka has remained a consistent presence toward the front of the pack since his early hot streak. Perry has been in the mix as well, but has been mired by a bit more adversity and middle-back finishes then surely he would have liked. Look for these two multi race-winners to get hot again as we go down the stretch.
Scotty Serydynski Jr. leads a contingent of youth going into the playoffs, both in points and wins, as he was the only other driver to be named a feature winner. His four top-threes suggest he’s perhaps a couple adjustments and maybe a Chad Baxter away from adding to that win total this September and stamping the family name into the history books as champion one more time.
Adam Pettey was hot on Serydynski’s heels this season as far as strong showings from the group of young drivers. Though he did not win, he came close, scoring a whopping nine top-five finishes (tied second-most with Pianka), among them three seconds and three thirds. While Pettey sure leaves it all out on the track week in and week out, it could be quite a thing for him to save that first win for championship weekend.
Colby Lambert and Tyler Almedia are the other two young drivers who punched their ticket to the playoff dance. Both Lambert and Almeida pieced together solid campaigns, earning three and two top fives, respectively. Lambert’s average finish is about an 8.4, and Almeida’s a 10.8. Save Lambert’s fifth place on August 13, the top five has eluded these two drivers this half of the summer. Look for Lambert and Almeida to conjure some dark horse energy and make a strong showing these next three weeks.
Last but not least, Doug Benoit piloted a strong yet arguably quiet 2022 season to date. Mustering just three top-five finishes and an average finish of 8.4, Benoit managed to sit no lower than fourth in points since at least June 11. Look for Benoit to draw from his championship-winning experience of recent years in Friday’s Pure Stock Division as he looks to make some playoff waves here in his sophomore season in the Sportsman division.
The Late Model Division is truly wide open for the taking. The regular season rounded out with the reigning champion, Vinnie Arrenegado Jr., sitting high atop the points standings after coming off his second win of the season. Yet, for much of the season, it was seven-time division champion Gerry DeGasparre Jr. who sat on top of the points heap, scoring three wins of his own.
Almost every week we saw a new winner this season. In fact, it took until week eight to see our first repeat winner, with DeGasparre breaking that trend. Chase Belcher was the second driver to do so, notching his second win of the season the following week. Belcher’s strong season was complemented by two more top-five finishes, allowing him to sit fifth in points comfortably since early June. Count on Belcher to keep beating the consistency drum all the way through to championship weekend.
Richie Murray was the first to chip in with a win on opening day, and would go on to score nine total top-five finishes, leading the rest of his competitors in the metric so far this season. This young gun is sure handed at the helm of his late model to say the least, especially on the edge during three-wide racing, which fans were treated to on multiple occasions this season. Look for Murray to strike as early and often in the playoffs as he did to start the season.
Mark Jenison, Jacob Burns, and Paul Lallier all filed in to pick up wins of their own. Jenison and Lallier both scored their wins at the hands of split-second margains, reminding all how tenacious they can be around the third-mile, and that they are going to be tough to top right down to the checkered flag. Jenison and Lallier combined likely have more years of racing experience than Burns has celebrated birthdays, but look for Burns to show everyone that age is just a number this September.
Jeramee Lillie is the odd man out as far as wins go, as he remains the only winless driver among his playoff counterparts for now. Certainly didn’t happen due to no lack of effort, as the No. 3 finished second best a crushing three times, second most only to Jenison. Watch out for Lillie to break through the winless streak and cash in when it matters most during a drive to the cup.
Seekonk Speedway’s heavyweight division features a storyline that anyone who has been to a race within the last 15 years is well aware of: Dave Darling’s dominant reign over the Pro Stocks. By now, we’ve all seen the “Anyone but Dave Darling 2022” t-shirts, and for the first few weeks, it looked like the field of Pro Stock challengers were gearing up to manifest a new king of the division for the first time in five seasons.
Mike Brightman was the first to step forward, winning two of three features right off the bat, and eventually grabbing a third on July 23. Division rookie Tommy Adams chimed in with a week-two win, catapulting himself forward on a playoff-worthy season on just his first go, later doubling down with another win on August 20. Look for both of these drivers to keep pace in the win column and make a deep playoff run in September.
Mark Jenison and Tom Scully Jr. jumped into the fray early on with feature wins of their own, coming in May and June respectively. Both Jenison and Scully enjoyed nearly more trips to the top five than anyone this season, with Jenison going six times (T-4th most with Bobby Pelland III) and Scully going eight times, second only to Darling. In fact, since June began, Scully has not finished outside of the top five. This level of consistency will surely pay dividends for these drivers in the form of a drive for the cup on championship weekend.
Bobby Pelland and Colbey Fournier made plenty of waves in the deep end of the Pro Stocks this season. Both drivers scored multiple top fives: Pelland with six, and Fournier with five. Pelland and Fournier finished the regular season in near lock step, with Pelland ahead by six points, but both sharing an average finish of 5.9. So, who has the edge here? Fournier did notch a second-place finish this season, which Pelland did not. What Pelland has done though, is win a championship here at Seekonk. Sure, it was in a different hot rod some eight years ago, but if it can happen once, surely it can happen again.
A driver that knows a thing or two about making championships happen again and again (five times) in this division is Rick Martin. However, while he may be top dog in the Sport Trucks, he is last in on points here. Martin did miss a week of racing in the Pro Stocks, and out of the 10 races he made, he came home in the top five in just four of them. It’s been 12 years since Martin’s last track title, but a revised playoff format may just do the trick to help etch his name into the record books one more time.
By the time the calendar had flipped over to July, Dave Darling still remained winless on the season - an unusual metric by Darling’s standards. Then the hammer dropped, and Darling went on to win three of four beginning July 16, and racked up his fourth feature during the regular season finale. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that the reigning champion four years running would be left without a seat at the playoff table come championship weekend. All that said, with this brand new format, combined with the drama and chippiness that has unfolded this season in this division, going just a little too far over the edge could dash championship hopes in an instant, and no driver is immune to that reality. Can he win number nine?
The Action Track of the East is about to see championship racing that it has never seen before. This elimination-style system will surely push drivers to their limits, and there’s no telling what drivers will do to stay out of the drop zone as soon as the green flag waves..
If you’ve hung on this long, then congratulations and gratitude is in order.
The best way to celebrate may well be to come on down to the biggest party in Southern New England when the Sunoco Race Fuels Drive For the Cup kicks off this Saturday, September 10 at 6:00 PM.
For tickets and more information on Seekonk Speedway, visit seekonkspeedway.com.
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