USAR: Lakeland CS: Final championship round race report

A Fitting End Lakeland, Fla. -- Eight was more than enough. All Shane Huffman needed to do in the Championship Finale Hooters 300 presented by Viste was keep Benny Gordon in his sights to win the Hooters ProCup Championship. Instead,...

A Fitting End

Lakeland, Fla. -- Eight was more than enough. All Shane Huffman needed to do in the Championship Finale Hooters 300 presented by Viste was keep Benny Gordon in his sights to win the Hooters ProCup Championship. Instead, Huffman went for the jugular, winning his eighth race of the season and picking up $250,000 for being the 2003 Hooters ProCup Series National Champion.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," said Huffman, who beat Bobby Gill by 1.187 seconds. "I was going to play it conservative, but we just had such a good car tonight." And Huffman showed his wares early in the Hooters 300.

Huffman, who earned his eighth pole award and $1,000 from Advance Auto Parts for setting quick time in qualifying, quickly broke free from the 41-car field from the drop of the green flag, building a three-second lead over second-place running Mike Laughlin Jr. by lap 47. While Huffman began mowing threw the back markers, Gill, who started fifth, started to climb into contention.

After falling to seventh on the start, Gill picked his way into the top five on lap 27 and moved all the way to second 21 laps later. Gordon, who started eighth, was also on the move early in the event, advancing four spots by lap 50.

Though Huffman felt no pressure from behind during the early stages of the event, the Hickory, N.C., driver didn't have clear sailing.

Huffman caught a large group of traffic on lap 52 and cautiously picked his way through. But the five laps of meticulously navigating the gaggle of cars on the tail end of the lead lap trimmed Huffman's lead down to 1.9 seconds over Gill by lap 57. Huffman cleared the pack on lap 59 and again checked out on Gill and Laughlin, pushing his lead back to three seconds.

Huffman's lead would continue to accordion over Gill during the next 20 laps, growing when Huffman had clear track and shrinking when he didn't. Huffman lapped 22 cars during the first 79 laps of the Hooters 300. However, Huffman's lead over Gill was erased as the race's second caution waved at lap 105 when 2002 Hooters ProCup Champion Jason Sarvis blew a right-front tire and scraped the Turn 2 wall.

The caution brought 18 of the 19 cars on the lead lap down pit road for service. Jeff Agnew elected to stay on the track and pick up five points for leading and led two laps before coming to pit road for service.

Gill was able to beat Huffman back on the track after the stop, taking over the lead for the first time on lap 110. Gill took advantage of his track position and started to stretch his lead over Huffman after the restart on lap 113.

Once in front, Gill picked up where Huffman left off in the first 100 laps, setting a blistering pace and lapping through the field. Gill lapped all the way up to 11th by the halfway mark. The three-time Hooters ProCup champion picked up $1,000 for being the Lucas Oil Halfway Leader and held the led until lap 174 when he made a fuel-only stop under caution.

"We didn't think we could get two cans [of gas] in on the last stop," said Gill of his out-of-sequence strategy.

Huffman assumed the lead after Gill's stop, but he would soon have some company for the top spot once the green waved.

After the restart, Laughlin Jr. shadowed Huffman for three laps before making his way out front on lap 184. Laughlin's pass of Huffman was the only time Huffman was passed under green-flag conditions. Sean Studer brought out the fourth caution of the night when he spun entering Turn 1 on lap 190.

Most leaders took advantage of the caution to make their final stop of the night. Needing to make up points, Benny Gordon decided to stay on the track and pick up five-bonus points. Gordon led the field for six laps until Huffman made his way out front for good on lap 197. Though Huffman led the final 103 laps, the race was anything but settled.

Mart Nesbitt, driving Huffman's backup car, and Gill followed Huffman around Gordon and moved into second and third, respectively.

Nesbitt lost his power steering laps later and Gill took over second spot. Once Gill cleared Nesbitt, he started putting the pressure on Huffman for lead. With the championship--and Gill--on his mind, Huffman pulled to the inside of the track on lap 215 to let Gill past. However, the race's sixth waved on lap 215 allowing Huffman, who led the previous lap, to keep the lead.

"They were trying to slow me down on the radio," said Huffman. "I was going to let Bobby around me. I got to thinking under that caution, and I told the team, 'The heck with this. I came here to race. I'm going to drive the wheels off the thing. And if [Gill] beats us, he was better than us.'"

And Gill wasn't better than Huffman during the last 85 laps. Gill was able to pull away from third-place running Mart Nesbitt, but he couldn't put any pressure on Huffman for the lead.

"It was just the tires," said Gill of his inability to retake the lead. "Every now and then, you just get bad tire, and that's what happened tonight."

Despite not winning, Gill did move forward four spots in the point standings with his second-place effort at USA International Speedway.

Nesbitt finished third and advanced three spots in the points to finish fifth.

Mardy Lindley finished fourth and moved up one spot in the point standings to finish third overall.

Scott Baker finished fifth and picked up $1,000 for being the Miller Lite Rookie of the Race. The race was slowed by caution on 11 occasions for 74 laps.

Hooters 300 Notebook

So-So Swan Song

Steve Christian announced early in the week that the Hooters 300 would be his final race in the Hooters ProCup Series. Christian, who is retiring to spend more time with his family, wanted to go out with a strong run, but he struggled find the setup and finished his career with a 12th-place finish.

"Obviously, we didn't finish the way we wanted," said Christian. "But in the big picture, this has been a lot of fun. This is a great series. We've had a great sponsor with Lucas Oil, and it has been a blast."

Un-Lucky Seven

Mike Laughlin Jr. finished second at Peach State after leading seven laps. Laughlin, who drives car No. 7, led seven laps at USA International, but he was nowhere to be seen at the finish. Laughlin suffered a mechanical failure on lap 231 and finished the night in the pits and in 34th place.

Show Me the Money

Shane Huffman won $10,000 for winning the Hooters 300, $1,000 for winning the pole, $250,000 for winning the 2003 Hooters ProCup Championship and a $25,000 bonus for winning 3-of-5 Championship Series event as a part of the Four Champions Challenge.

If you combine that with his season winnings, Huffman won $412,800 in 2003.

Tears of Joy

Benny Gordon let a few tears fly at the end of the night. Gordon finished sixth in the Hooters 300 and 99 points behind Huffman in the final standings, but the tears didn't fall because he of the title he didn't win. They came for the one he did win at USA International.

Gordon won $10,000 for winning the Miller Lite Rookie of the Year Award.

"We had fun out there tonight," said Gordon. "I finished sixth, but the whole team had a bunch of fun racing tonight."

Double the Pleasure

Mart Nesbitt and Shane Huffman became teammates at the Hooters 300. The one-race deal was put together to ensure the Xtra Motorsports team had a car in victory lane and that Nesbitt could advance in the points. It worked on both accounts.

Nesbitt finished third and picked up three spots in the points, while Huffman claimed his eighth win.

"I didn't qualify well, but we fought our way up to second. This is an awesome racecar," said Nesbitt. "We thought we had a shot at winning the race, but the power steering went out on us. I was just hanging on at the end."

Nesbitt picked up the Hard Charger Award and a $500 bonus for advancing 16 positions during the race.

Race Stats

Advance Auto Parts Pole Award- $1000- Shane Huffman (21.742 /124.184MPH -New Track Record)

Lucas Oil Products 1/2 Way Leader-$1000- Bobby Gill

Hard Charger - $500- Mart Nesbitt

Miller Lite Rookie of the Race -$1000- Scott Baker

CV Products Engine Builder of the Race - #84 Automotive Specialist

Number of caution flags-11 1 Red flag-6 min. Total laps under caution- 74

Time of race- 2:44:56 Green Flag Average Speed-120.161 MPH Margin of Win- 1.187 sec

Lap Leaders- 1-107 Shane Huffman(220); 108-109 Jeff Agnew(2); 110-174 Bobby Gill(65); 175-183 Shane Huffman; 184-190 Mike Laughlin Jr(7); 191-196 Benny Gordon(6); 197-300 Shane Huffman.

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Series Stock car
Drivers Shane Huffman , Jeff Agnew