STOCKTON — Second-generation driver Gary Shafer Jr., of Stockton, continued his late-season charge as he racked up his third consecutive victory for the Stockton Late Models in Saturday’s 50-lap feature at the Stockton 99 Speedway.
Kimberly Rouse, of Stockton, sat on the pole while Shafer and Stockton’s Joey Stearns, the top two in the SLM season points standings, started beside each other in the fourth row in the solid 17-car field.
An eventful opening lap saw Rouse quickly swallowed up by Tracy’s Justin Philpott and Stockton’s Greg Potts while Stearns went for a spin in Turn 1 as the rest of the field jostled for position. Stearns was able to keep his car off the wall, but he cut a tire which forced him to the pits to make repairs and relegated him to the back of the field for the restart.
As Potts, who showed little rust despite was making his first start of the season, swapped the lead a couple of times with Philpott up front, Shafer patiently began to work his way through the pack. He was able to get by Philpott on lap 27 after the pair battled side-by-side for several laps and then used a back marker for a pick to slip under Potts for the lead nine laps later.
Shafer easily held off Potts over the remainder of the race to notch his fourth win of the season while Lathrop’s Eric Nascimento, the defending track champion, nipped Philpott by half a car length for third, and Stearns rounded out the top five.
“I love the heck out of that kid JoJo Stearns. I even raced his dad many years back and I have nothing but respect for him because he always races hard and clean,” said Shafer, who entered the night trailing Stearns by just nine points in the season standings. “But I’ve been chipping away at those points and I just want him to know we are coming.”
The battle for the 2021 SLM track championship looks to be down to Shafer and Stearns. The pair head into the “double points” finale on Saturday, Oct. 23 in a flat-footed tie with 434 points each, although Philpott still retains faint hopes for a fourth championship with 392.
“Winning the championship here would mean everything to me,” admitted Shafer. “I have been close a couple of times, but never this close and I am praying to the lord that good luck stays on our side and we can get it.”
Joe Flowers and Josh Cross, both of Manteca, resumed their season long battle for the B-4 season title with Flowers, the defending division champion, holding an ultra-slim one-point lead over his son-in-law at the start of the night.
After qualifying 1-2, the pair led the 17-car field from the front row for the start of the 25-lap feature where Flowers grabbed the initial lead only to be overtaken by Cross one lap later. They were soon joined by Stockton’s Barrett Sugden, and the trio went nose-to-tail for the rest of the race with Cross prevailing as he doggedly held them off to take his ninth win of the season.
“That was exciting. That top five cars were all within one tenth of each other so we knew we had to go out there and make it happen tonight,” said Cross, who was already looking forward to next week’s showdown. “We are going to show up and just keep doing what we have been doing all year.”
As a result of Saturday’s finish, Cross will go into the season finale with a narrow two-point lead over Flowers (584 to 582), while Stockton’s Nick Hall remains in the hunt, trailing Cross by 17 points with 567.
Linden’s Allen Rider, Stockton veteran Donnie Darter and Manteca’s Joe Reichmuth set the pace from the opening lap in the 25-lap Bomber main, gradually pulling away from the rest of the pack. Rider remained in control until a yellow-caution restart on lap 20 allowed Darter to slip into the lead.
As Darter marched to his first win in over 10 years at the 99, Reichmuth moved alongside of Rider entering the final lap in a bid to snatch second place. The pair were dead even heading to the checkered flag before Rider inched his bumper ahead just enough to claim second by two-thousands of a second.
“We have been working on this thing for six weeks just trying make the car better and figure it out. It has come a long way and tonight it almost drove itself,” explained Darter, the 2007 Street Stock champion. “We are hoping to be out here full time next year.”
Despite the disappointing finish, Reichmuth now holds a comfortable, though hardly insurmountable, lead of 16 points (459 to 443) over Rider in the Bomber standings going into the final race.
Unlike the other divisions, there is little drama left in the B-4 Juniors as Stockton’s Jordan Lovelace went wire-to-wire to finish a full straightaway ahead of Manteca’s Jayden Cross for his tenth straight win of the season.
A full 24-car field in the Legends of the Pacific produced numerous yellow-cautions and one red flag stoppage over the first dozen laps of their 35-lap feature. When the dust finally settled, Tracy’s Brendan Ruzbartsky assumed control of the race and cruised to the victory over Sebastopol’s Cody Winchel and Nick Halen, a long tow from Carson City, Nev.
The 2021 racing season at the 99 Speedway will conclude with a “double points” night on Oct. 23, where 2021 division champions for the Stockton Late Models, Bombers, Mini Cups, B-4s and B-4 Juniors will be crowned.