USAR: Top 10 stories of 2005

Top 10 Stories of '05 Longs, SC-The 2005 Hooters Pro Cup season will be one that's remembered for a long time. On paper, it was the biggest and best season in the Pro Cup annuals. But on the track, it was just as good. With the 2006 season...

Top 10 Stories of '05

Longs, SC-The 2005 Hooters Pro Cup season will be one that's remembered for a long time. On paper, it was the biggest and best season in the Pro Cup annuals. But on the track, it was just as good.

With the 2006 season less than 60 days away, it's time to remember the special moments that defined the banner campaign.

Below is a list of the Top 10 stories that stood out during the year.

10. Teams with Nextel Cup ties win just one race

When Rusty Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all put teams in the Hooters Pro Cup Series in 2005, many purist thought the sky was falling.

How could Pro Cup teams compete with these well-funded and technologically-advanced groups?

Answer: Well, very well.

Mark McFarland, driver of the No. 32s Dale Jr.-owned Chevrolet was the only driver to break into the win column in 2005.

"It definitely helps the recognition of the series to have the guys with [NEXTEL] Cup ties racing with us," said Shane Huffman, who won a series-high nine times in 2005. "As far as them ruining competition, [most of us] weren't worried about that. [Pro Cup] races aren't like races in other series. You don't have cars that are so technically-dependent and aero-sensitive. You have to drive these cars, and it takes a year or so to learn all the tricks.

"Mark [McFarland] did a great job, and he could have easily won more than one race. Overall, the new teams did make the competition level go up, and that was good for the series."

9. Mardy Lindley's Consistency Pays off in Regular Season

While Mardy Lindley finished the season a disappointing 27th in the Championship Series, his regular season was a model of consistency.

In 12 regular season races, Lindley completed all 2,967 laps available.

"[Completing all the laps] is just a tribute to the way my team prepared the cars," said Lindley. "It was also of the motor guys. We twisted [the engines] to death, and they always held up." Even more impressive was the fact that Lindley averaged a 4.75 finish during the regular season and finished second in points. Lindley finished in the top 10 in every regular-season race and racked up nine top-five finishes.

8. Record Registration

In July, Brett Butler became the 173rd driver to register for competition in the Hooters Pro Cup Series, breaking the record set in 2001 of 171 drivers. At the end of the year, 181 different drivers registered for competition in the Hooters Pro Cup Series. But they just didn't register, 152 drivers entered at least one race during the season.

"We thought this season had all the makings of breakthrough year," said Tony Cox, USAR series director. "Bob Brooks [CEO of Hooters of America, Inc.] created this series to give racers of varying backgrounds a chance to compete in a quality-run, national touring series. And I believe that his vision has become a reality this season."

While the Championship Series allows drivers not running full-time to compete for the overall title, 52 drivers made at least 10 starts during the season.

7. The Rookie Class

We'll have to wait and see if the 2005 Miller Lite Rookie of the Year class was the best of all time. While it may take time until we see their full potential, what the newbies did in 2005 was quite phenomenal.

Rookies Woody Howard and A.J. Frank finished third and sixth, respectively, in Northern Division points. In the Southern Division, six rookies finished inside the top 20 in points. To top it off, Woody Howard won three times, and Joey Logano picked up one win, giving them two more wins than the heralded 2000 Miller Lite Rookie of the Year class that featured, Shane Huffman, Clay Rogers, Jon Wood and Brian Vickers.

"The rookie class of 2005 may be the best group of rookies we've ever seen," said Tony Cox, USAR Series Director. "Whether they go on to win Pro Cup titles like Clay and Shane, or win at higher levels like Vickers and Wood, remains to be seen, but they've got the potential to become household names in the racing world."

6. Michael Ritch Breaks Through

After a six-year drought, Michael Ritch finally made his way back at Mansfield Motorsport Speedway. On a rainy, dreary day, Ritch fended off a late-race charge by Jody Lavender to pick up his 11th career win, and his first since 1999 at Caraway (N.C.) Speedway.

"I'm lost; I'm absolutely lost," Ritch said after his breakout win "The emotions are running high right now. I have to thank Jackaroo and Becky Cecil, Nu-Go, Stewart Development and my boy at Upchruch Engineering. They've all stuck with me, and they deserve this win.

"Those last 25 laps were tough, because I knew I had a pretty good car. We were just in the right place at the right time [when Huffman and Lavender] got together. Once I got in front, I felt like I could hold off Jody [Lavender]."

5. Lavender Steps Up

After finishing 28th in points in 2004, Jody Lavender wasn't on most people's radar when 2005 rolled around. But Lavender quickly went from a blip to a blob on the Hooters Pro Cup screen. And it all started at Ace Speedway.

Jody Lavender tracked down Shane Huffman to take the lead late in the race and held off a feverish charge by Jay Fogleman to win his first Pro Cup race. Fueled by the win, Lavender reeled off six top-10 in the final seven races, including four top-five finishes, and moved from 18th to fifth in final Southern Division standings.

Lavender backed up his regular season in the Championship Series, racking up four top-10 finishes and finishing sixth in the overall standings.

"It really was a great year overall," said Lavender after finishing ninth in the season finale. "I brought on Steve Bird this year, and he made such a difference in our performance. I couldn't do this without my dad, Heritage Bank or H&R Block, so it was great to run well for them."

4. Super-Huffman

If you ask anyone around the garage area, they'll tell you the competition level in 2005 was the highest ever in the Hooters Pro Cup Series. So to think that a driver could win an astonishing nine times in 21 races was unfathomable. But that's exactly what Shane Huffman did.

The 2003 Hooters Pro Cup champ picked up wins at USA Int'l Speedway and South Georgia Motorsport Park to open the season then added a win at Peach State Speedway in the fourth race of the year. After two DNFs, Huffman again won three of the next four races, pushing his win total to six with four races remaining. Although he only won one of the final four races, Huffman won seven of the 13 Southern Division races during the regular season.

Huffman added two wins in the Championship Series, but he came up 18 points shy of taking his second title.

"If I didn't say I was brokenhearted, I'd be lying," Huffman said after winning the season finale, but losing the overall title. "It was a heck of a year, and I really wanted this championship for Pete and Bud Knight and all the guys on the team, but we came up a little short. I'm trying to smile a lot, but it's hard.

"Those last few laps were hard. I knew Benny was doing exactly what he needed to do to win the championship. My hat is off to [Predator Performance]; they've got an awesome race team. We had some bad luck in a few races, and that was the difference in the championship."

3. Northern Aggression

For the first time since the inception of the two division formant in 2001, a Northern Division driver took the overall title in the Hooters Pro Cup Series. While that may not be headline news, considering Gordon's performance in 2003 and 2004, the fact that four of the top five in the final standings were Northern Division drivers should land on the front page.

"We've got a great group of guys that ran in the North this year," said Benny Gordon. "When Gary St. Amant, Woody Howard, Jeff Agnew and Johnny Rumley are running good, it's so much fun to race them. It's like a high-speed chess match. They race you hard, but they race you clean."

2. Coming Out Party

Officially, Joey Logano made his Hooters Pro Cup debut on May 28, but his Coming Out Party was held on June 11 in Mansfield, Ohio.

With 30 laps remaining in the Mansfield 250, Logano was running third to Jeff Agnew and Shane Huffman. But on Lap 229, the newly turned, 15-year-old driver took the lead after Shane Huffman was hit with a rough driving penalty for an altercation with race-leader Jeff Agnew on Lap 227.

After Huffman and Agnew fell to the rear of the field, Logano separated himself from second-place running Mardy Lindley, driver of the No. 16 Hooters Air Ford, by four car lengths by Lap 245. But with two laps to go, the race's final caution set up a green-white-checkered finish.

"I came over the radio and said, 'I didn't need that,'" said Logano. "We had a four-car length lead! I've never been nervous in a racecar, but I was thinking on that restart, make sure you don't miss any gears and all that stuff. I didn't say anything on the radio. I just tried to get a good restart. I was looking in my mirror more than I was looking in front of me. After I got in front of [Lindley] in the corner, he looked like he got loose, and we were able to pull away."

For those in attendance, it was a moment they'll never forget. And a moment that will probably stay in the Hooters Pro Cup record books for a long time.

With his win, Logano broke Brian Vickers' record of being the youngest driver ever to win a Pro Cup race.

"[Before that race], I read that Brian Vickers had the record, and I really wanted to break it," said Logano. "I really didn't think we had the car to beat [at Mansfield], but we put ourselves in the right position."

1. My Name Is: Woody Howard

It was moments before the pit gates opened at South Boston Speedway for the opening race of the Northern Division, and Woody Howard was nowhere to be found.

With minutes to spare, Howard wheeled into the garage area, looking to enter his first Pro Cup race. However, the late entrance, and general confusion around the team, wasn't a foreshadowing of Howard's rookie season would go.

He promptly qualified on the outside of the front row in his first start. The team did struggle to remain consistent until Kil-Kare in the middle of the season, but the Dean Motorsports team found their stride and grabbed three wins in the next four races.

Howard finished third in the season-finale Miller Lite 250, clinching the Northern Division Miller Lite Rookie of the Year and the $10,000 prize.

"To come from the way we started the season to where we are now, it's unbelievable," said Howard after the regular season finale. "I think we'll be tough in the Championship Series, too."

Howard was tough in the Championship Series, posting three top-10 finishes in the final five-race shootout and finishing fourth in overall points.

"This year was the most fun I've ever had driving a race car," said Howard. "We worked our butts off, but it was a blast. Next year, we're going to be more prepared at the start of the season, and I think we'll be title contenders."

And perhaps be the top story of 2006.

-usar-

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