STOCKTON — Gary Shafer Jr., of Stockton, went wire-to-wire to capture the victory in Saturday’s season finale 100-lap Stockton Late Model feature at the Stockton 99 Speedway, while second-generation driver Joey “Jo Jo” Stearns, of Stockton, cruised home just behind him in second to claim the 2022 track championship.
Stearns began coming to the 99 Speedway to watch his father Joey Stearns race since he was a toddler. In 2017, at the age of 11, he made his racing debut in the Mini Cup class and won the championship in the division the following year. His father has given up driving to build and prepare Jo Jo’s race car.
Stearns entered Saturday night leading the season point standings by 20 over Stockton’s Ty Carlson and 24 over Shafer, but with double points on the line for the final race he needed to finish sixth or better to lock down the championship.
As Shafer and Carlson jumped out to the front on the opening lap Stearns gladly settled into the third spot where he was able to conserve his tires and stay clear of trouble. When Carlson began to fade about a third of the way into the race, Stearns carefully slipped underneath him to take over second place where he seemed content to remain to the finish.
“I know when I run with Ty it is going to be clean and I don’t worry about either of us spinning or moving each other. I always enjoy racing with him.” said Stearns, who spent the previous night leading Linden High to a 28-27 come-from-behind victory over Stagg High as the starting quarterback.
The lone yellow-caution of the race that came out on lap 75 gave Stearns the opportunity to line up alongside of Shafer on the restart and challenge for the win, but Stearns kept his eyes on the big picture and elected to fade back into second place where he coasted home about four car lengths behind Shafer.
“I wanted to play it safe for the championship, but it would have been nice to get a win tonight also,” admitted Stearns. “We had a decent car, but Gary just had a phenomenal car. He was really untouchable tonight.”
Stockton’s Larry Tankersley was able to slip by Carlson in the final laps to take third place in the race and secure Shafer the second spot in the season standings.
“We started off the season with a couple of wins, but they changed the rules a bit and we have spent most of the year adjusting to them and slowly making the car better and better. We finally have the car back to where it was last year,” explained Shafer, who beat Stearns in the final race last season to take the 2021 track championship. “When I started racing out here, I competed against his dad, and I have a lot of respect for his family. I remember seeing him as a little kid in the bleachers and now he is the champion.”
After the race Stearns celebrated on the front straight with his family and crew, receiving a huge hug from his teary-eyed father. He reflected on becoming the 74th and — at age 17— the youngest track champion at the historic quarter-mile oval that opened in 1947.
“It is so cool. Last year we were close, but this year we really found something and went along with it. Now I am actually in the books with the big timers,” said Stearns, before adding with a smile, “And now I’ve got something on my dad because he never won a late model title here.”
Josh Cross and father-in-law Joe Flowers, both of Manteca, continued their season-long dominance of the B-4 division by posting a 1-2 finish in their 30-lap feature. Cross earned his seventh win of the season, and Flowers the B-4 season championship by 33 points over Stockton’s Andrew Rumsey.
Flowers started the race from the front row and held the lead until Cross slipped under him just past the halfway point in the race. The pair spent the remainder of the race jitterbugging through traffic, going three-wide and splitting back markers on several occasions, in the caution free race.
“It was fun tonight. Joe was pushing really hard, and I was waiting for just the right time to make a move around him and I finally got it,” Cross said. “It was wild weaving through the lapped traffic, but we have all been out here all year so I pretty much know what people are gonna do and what line they will take when I get near them.”
With the championship on the line and having his hands full negotiating his way through traffic, Flowers was more than satisfied to shadow behind Cross to the checkered flag.
“It was pretty hectic out there. When I was leading, I was being careful to pick my holes and when Josh got ahead of me I was happy to follow him. I knew all I had to do was stay ahead of the six car (Rumsey),” said Flowers, who posted six wins of his own this season giving the pair a total of 13 wins in 14 races. “This is so awesome. He was a bit faster than me, but we both gave it our all tonight.”
Cross and Flowers have become a mini dynasty in the B-4 class. In addition to this year’s championship, Flowers also won the season title in 2020 while Cross took top honors in 2019 and 2021 to give the duo four straight championships.
“I can’t believe it. Six years ago I had a dream to just come out here and race and now we have four straight. It is so cool,” Cross said.
However, their streak may be coming to an end as both men are planning on racing just a part-time basis next season.
“We both have to do some wife stuff next year so I don’t know if we will be running for points,” said Flowers before quickly hedging. “We will still be out here a lot and you never know because things can always change.”
Donnie Darter, of Valley Springs, put an exclamation point on his season-long mastery of the Bomber division by capturing his 10th win of the year on Saturday and he wrapped up the division championship by simply taking the green flag to start the race.
Darter spent the opening half of the 20-lap feature locked up in an exciting side-by-side battle with Lodi’s Brandon Jones that lasted for several laps. He eventually gained the advantage and slowly began to pull away from the rest of the field in the later stages of the race for a three second victory over Jones and Stockton’s Barrett Sugden.
“It was pretty stress-free tonight since I knew we already had things sewn up, but I still had to go for it because I can’t stand it if I am not winning,” said Darter with a smile. “I have to thank my crew and sponsor for making this all happen and keeping me in line.”
Darter, the 2007 Street Stock championship at the 99, will be looking to compete for the late model title next season.
Natalie Harper, age 14 of Stockton, clinched the season title for the B-4 Junior division by outdueling Livermore’s Dustin King for her fifth win of the season in a 12-lap feature.
“This was pretty difficult to be honest. I had some pretty strong competition and a few other problems,” admitted Harper, who overcame a broken wrist from a midseason accident on her way to the championship.
Stockton Dirt Track
The local racing season will conclude on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Stockton Dirt Track, located at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, with the 39th Annual Tribute to Gary Patterson, featuring the NARC King of the West Fujitsu 410 Sprint Car Series, Elk Grove Ford & Abreau Vineyards 360 Sprints and Hunt Magneto Wingless Tour finals.
SRL Southwest Tour Series
Jeremy Doss, of Upper Lake, grabbed the lead from Blaine Rocha, of Oakdale, on the restart following the mandatory competition yellow-caution at the halfway point of the 80-lap “October Classic” at Kern County Raceway for the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series.
Doss was never seriously challenged for the remainder of the event as he took the checkered flag ahead of Frazier Park’s Cale Kanke, Tustin’s Andy Allen and Manteca’s Jacob Gomes. However, Allen would be disqualified after failing post-race tech inspection which promoted Gomes to third.
As a result, Doss closed the championship gap from 32 points before the event, to just 17 over Gomes, the 2015 SRL Series champion, with just one race remaining on the 10-event 2022 schedule. The SRL season will conclude at Irwindale Raceway on Saturday, Nov. 17.