FIGHT FOR NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, SOUTHEAST SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP A HEATED ONE BETWEEN JEFF FULTZ AND J.R. NORRIS DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 7, 2005) -- With two races remaining in the 2005 NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast...
FIGHT FOR NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, SOUTHEAST SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP A HEATED ONE BETWEEN JEFF FULTZ AND J.R. NORRIS
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 7, 2005) -- With two races remaining in the 2005 NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series, the battle for the championship is on and it is a good one as two-time series champion Jeff Fultz leads sophomore driver J.R. Norris by a mere 32 points.
Those 32 points could change next Sunday evening, Oct. 16, in the Tennessee 150 at the Music City Motorplex in Nashville. The series' second visit this season to the famed short track on the grounds of the Tennessee State Fair is going to play a vital role in who is crowned the 2005 Southeast Series champion.
There are tons of different scenarios that may play out in deciding who will win the title, but the veteran Fultz and second-year Southeast Series driver Norris want to win it the old fashioned way -- by beating the other driver out on the track and not by just getting lucky. Unfortunately for Norris, he watched Fultz take the championship lead from him in the last Southeast Series race at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
"We're really excited because this team is back to where they were earlier in the year," Fultz said. "We just hit a little bit of a slump in the middle of the season where we struggled. Everybody has worked real hard to get this team back to where we can win every race we go to from here on out. We've spent a lot of time getting the car back to where it needs to be. We lost the points lead by flat tires and bad luck, but then at South Georgia we were able to get the championship lead back when J.R. had motor problems and dropped out pretty early.
"Now we've got to go to Nashville and have a really good run there because that's a big race for us all. J.R. has always run very well at Nashville so I expect him and a bunch of other guys like Gary Helton to have good efforts. I think we're going to have a pretty good car ourselves and it would be cool to win at Nashville. I'm bringing a car I love and it has won a lot of races, it's my favorite. I think we've worked out a lot of the gremlins that burnt us and let J.R. back in the championship race."
Fultz, a Mooresville, N.C. resident and Ohio native who works full-time for the MB2 Motorsports NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series team, knows the championship ball is now in his court and he and his team control their own destiny.
"If we win the rest of the races, there's nothing J.R. can do about the championship," Fultz said. "If we don't, that leaves the door wide open for J.R. to really jump on us. Hopefully we'll be able to pull this title off."
If it sounds like Fultz may be playing a little mind game with the defending Southeast Series Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year winner, you're probably right. The 25 year-old Norris isn't too worried though, due in large part to the amount of respect the Mulga, Ala. native holds for Fultz.
"The championship lead was something I wanted to go into these last two races, but that just isn't the case for us after blowing up at South Georgia," Norris says. "Hopefully, our bad luck is over for the rest of the year. We hope it won't bite us again because we sure don't need it. If I can keep everything going like I have lately, I know we're going to be good at Nashville. All I have to do is beat Jeff Fultz by about four positions per race. That's a tall order but it can sure be done. I want to bring the big trophy home from the (post-season) banquet. We sure can't afford any more bad luck."
Norris held the championship lead until the last Southeast Series event at South Georgia before engine problems less than five laps into the race sent him to the garage for the night. He admits it was one of the most crushing times of his racing career.
"Words can't really describe how I felt," Norris says. "I was sick to my stomach, but then again those things happen. All you can do is forget about it because that race is over and done. Now the concentration is on the Music City Motorplex and our last race of the year at Montgomery (Ala.)."
Fultz had a busy last weekend serving as the driver coach for Craig Kinser, son of legendary sprint car hero Steve Kinser, guiding the youngster to victory in the ARCA RE/MAX Series event at Talladega Superspeedway. Norris spent Tuesday afternoon participating in the Larry McReynolds Celebrity Golf Match fundraiser in Charlotte, N.C.
Norris and Fultz are indeed rivals on the track in the Southeast Series, but Norris admits that racing for the championship with the all-time series win leader is something that means a great deal to him.
"Jeff Fultz's record in the Southeast Series really makes you want to beat him even more," Norris says. "We both seem to have a lot of mutual respect for each other. He's one of the only guys who you can rub fenders with out on the track, then come back in the pits if you raced him clean, and not have to argue with him after the checkered flag. We know what each other is going to do. I know how he's going to race me and I know how I can race him. We both know what to expect from one another.
"If something happens out on the track between us, we leave it on the track and don't let it affect our friendship. I've always shaken Jeff's hands before and after every race I've ever competed against him."
One person who shouldn't be counted out is Cleveland, Ga. driver Jason Hogan, who sits third in the Southeast Series standings only 12 points out of a tie with Wilmington, N.C. driver Kevin Prince who heads to Music City fourth in the points.
"It looks like it's going to be a two-man race for the Southeast Series championship between Jeff and J.R., but then again both of them could have problems and let me back in this thing," Hogan says. "It's not entirely impossible for me to move from third to first in the championship race if both those guys run into problems. We're not done yet and we can still win this championship if things work out just right for us."
In addition to the overall series championship, the top 10 drivers in the series are racing for a chance to compete in the third annual NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway, Nov. 10-12. The invitational event features the top 10 drivers from each of the four series that comprise the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, including the Midwest, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Series. The Toyota All-Star Showdown awards nearly $500,000 to competitors and will be televised live on SPEED Channel.