WEST RICHLAND, Wash. (Sept. 4, 2004) -- In early spring every year all race teams have aspirations of a series championship especially the team that won the previous season. Sometimes, though, the pressure, the consistency needed and the luck ...
WEST RICHLAND, Wash. (Sept. 4, 2004) -- In early spring every year all race teams have aspirations of a series championship especially the team that won the previous season. Sometimes, though, the pressure, the consistency needed and the luck required to repeat as champion is too much to ask. In 20 seasons, the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series has had just two drivers; Kevin Hamlin (2001-02) and Kelly Tanner (1996-97) successfully defend the title.
As the 2004 season got underway it seemed for one reason or another that Jeff Jefferson may not be able to add his name to that short list. He finished 24th in the season's first race and followed that up with a 18th-place effort in the second event. However, Jefferson and the #42 Sunfair Chevrolet/LeMay Car Museum team knew they were better than that and, more importantly, believed that they could bounce back and make a run at the repeat.
Jefferson took a huge step toward that goal Saturday night at the Ranch & Home 125 at TriCity Raceway in West Richland, Wash. by collecting his series-best fourth win of the season equaling his victory total from that championship season a year ago. As has been the case in all of his wins this year, Jefferson and his dominant car were the class of the field.
"My team has given me a fast car all season long and all I have to do is keep it on the track and stay out of trouble," said the Naches, Wash. native.
That task seemed fairly easy. His only side-by-side racing of the night was moving up from his start in the fourth position and the battle to take the race lead from Matt Hall early on. As the two headed into turn three, Howard was attempting to hold Jefferson off from the outside, but he got too high on the racetrack causing himself to lose traction and slide off the track thus giving the lead to Jefferson, a lead that would never be relinquished. "Obviously, I knew he was there and I actually moved down a little because I thought he might try and come off the turn and pinch me a little," said Jefferson of the incident. "I guess he just got up in that loose stuff and couldn't hang on."
While Jefferson was done with door-to-door racing at that point as he was able to quickly dispense of lap down cars on restarts, it did not mean that the rest of the field was ready to hand him the trophy. Brandon Riehl, who won his second Bud Pole Award of the season in his Aero Turbine/Darrel's Economy Muffler Chevy with a lap speed of 99.773 mph on the 1/2-mile tri-oval, was able to put the nose of his car on the rear deck lid of Jefferson's on lap 85 but a power steering fluid leak ended that challenge.
Prior to that, Riehl and Jefferson's younger brother Jason had very fast cars, but they engaged in a hotly contested battle for second allowing Jeff Jefferson to drive off to a substantial lead. "I was very happy that those two were racing each other that hard, it gave me a chance to get away from them and start saving my tires for later," said the race winner. Riehl would eventually win that battle before succumbing to that mechanical problem.
As for Jason Jefferson, he had an encounter with the outside retaining wall in turn one on lap 69 damaging the suspension beyond repair on his Mike Olson Dodge/Legends Casino Dodge which forced him to retire from the race.
Pete Harding in the L.P. Body Shop/Yale Forklift Chevrolet was next to take aim at Jeff Jefferson. Like Riehl, Harding was able to move up to right behind Jefferson, but a late caution for all intents and purposes ended his bid for the pass and possible victory. Northwest Series rules mandate a "green-white-checkered" finish to avoid ending a race under caution, but the three laps were not enough for Harding to do anything with the strong Jefferson machine. "Starting 16th like I did and having to work through all that traffic took a lot out of the car, but I was seeing that Jeff might give me some opportunities to get past him, but that last caution came out," said the veteran racing out of Surrey, B.C. Canada. "With just three more laps of green flag racing, I just couldn't get up on him again."
Harding came in second for the third time this season, which in his words is "too many". But being relegated, once again, to runner-up status was not all bad. By virtue of moving up from 16th to second over the course of the race earned Harding the POWERade "Power Move of the Race" Award. And after finishing 13th in the prior event at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway, the second-place effort also brought Harding the Featherlite "Most Improved Driver" Award.
There was additional good news for Harding as the race ended. No sooner than he shut off the motor on his car, he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and placed a call to his son, Shane, who is a rising star in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series racing at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash., to see how his evening went. Shane earned a victory and placed second his two races. "It's not going to be too long before he wants my ride," quipped Harding.
Steven Howard, hailing from Roy, Wash., quietly went about his business in the Great Northwest Homes/Seddon Marketing Group Chevrolet just as he has done all season long, but this race would bring a greater reward, a Northwest Series career-best third-place finish. "This is a good feeling. We've been digging and digging all season long and now it is all coming together," said an elated Howard, the series' youngest driver.
Coming home in fourth, tying his season-best finish was Lacey, Washington's Wes Rhodes. It was the fifth top-five effort for the #6 Knight Fire Protection Chevrolet.
Travis Bennett, out of Ellensburg, Wash., drove his Bowman's Electro Painting/Zeb's Truck Stop/Knudson Lumber Chevy to a fifth-place finish, which was its sixth such performance this season. Additionally, Bennett has logged a top-10 finish in all 10 events in 2004, the series only driver to accomplish this feat.
Rounding out the top 10 were John Bender, Tom Sweatman, Joe Benedetti, Riehl and Gary Lewis.
The reason this was such a big step toward Jefferson's repeat bid was the effect this race had on the season points race. Garrett Evans and Jason Jefferson came into the event in the top two spots. Jason Jefferson had the evening-ending accident on lap 69 while Evans experienced a mechanical difficulty in the rear of his car on lap 20.
Demonstrating how important the drive for Evans' fifth series championship is, his crew broke out the welding equipment on pit road in an effort to get him back out on the track to collect as many points as he could. Evans got back out on the track on lap 70, 50 laps behind the leader. It proved to be enough as Evans was able to hold onto that precious lead in points though Bennett was able to whittle it down to just six points. Jeff Jefferson with the win was able to move to within 15 points of the leader.
Despite Evans' obvious desire to win at all costs, Jefferson feels that the title is his to lose. "I probably have to win the last two races and that is exactly what I intend to do," said the determined Jefferson.
The stage is set for Evans, Bennett and Jeff Jefferson to battle it out over the season's final two races for the 2004 series championship, but don't lose sight of Jason Jefferson and Harding who lurk just 51 and 52 points behind Evans, respectively.
The next chance for these drivers to fight for the crown comes on September 18 in a rare late season visit to Evergreen Speedway for the Big O Tires 125. This race was originally scheduled to be the season-opening event in March, but inclement weather in the metropolitan Seattle area forced a postponement. So, the most storied track in the Northwest Series' history will get the opportunity for its 5/8-mile oval to have a real say in this Northwest-style chase for the championship.
The 2004 Northwest Series champion will officially be crowned on September 25 in a 150-lap event at the Wenatchee Valley's Super Oval in East Wenatchee, Wash., the season's final race.
While leaving the track after seeing that he was squarely in striking distance of that coveted second series championship ring a confident Jeff Jefferson gave a wink and smile saying, "See you in Monroe."