Jeff Fultz Claims Second Southeast Series Title While Zach Niessner Wins AutoZone 150 at Music City Motorplex NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 25, 2004) -- It was Zach Niessner winning the battle Saturday night at Music City Motorplex with his victory in...
Jeff Fultz Claims Second Southeast Series Title While Zach Niessner Wins AutoZone 150 at Music City Motorplex
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 25, 2004) -- It was Zach Niessner winning the battle Saturday night at Music City Motorplex with his victory in the AutoZone 150 Presented by 105.9 The Rock, but it was Jeff Fultz winning the season long war by clinching the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series championship.
Niessner grabbed the lead from the race's dominant car of rookie driver J.R. Norris with seven laps to go to score the victory in his first Southeast Series start of the 2004 season.
"We had a game plan from the start of the race," Niessner said. "We wanted to save our tires even though J.R. Norris set a heck of a pace and I knew I couldn't keep up with him as fast as he was running early in the race. J.R. was gone and I was half a lap down until we got that first caution. If it hadn't been for the caution I never would have caught him."
Norris, who ended up second in both Saturday night's race as well as the final Southeast Series point standings was almost at a loss for words in trying to explain how bad it hurt to lead the race with such a stout car only to fall short at the end.
"I had the dominant car," Norris said after stopping by Victory Lane to congratulate Fultz on winning the title. "I don't even really know what to say. The motor started to lay down on me about Lap 80. I gave it all I had but I just couldn't hold Niessner off there at the end. I caught the lapped traffic and he made the pass for the lead. Once I got behind him I couldn't do anything with him. I had an awesome car.
"Looking back on the whole season, with me being a rookie, I can't be disappointed because we won a race and three poles. It is a little disappointing to lead as much of this race as we did only to give it away at the end and came home second."
Fultz came into Saturday night's Southeast Series race holding a 67-point advantage over Auto Meter Rookie-of-the-Year winner J.R. Norris while third-place was only three points behind Norris in third. Despite that point advantage, Norris couldn't overcome the 13th place finish by Fultz who grabbed the title by 21 points.
"I want to apologize to the fans for how bad we ran tonight," Fultz said. "This race team is just incredible. We've won five races this year in pretty convincing fashion, but we struggled with the car here every since we unloaded. The car was so loose I couldn't drive it. All the guys on the team kept me calm because I was getting pretty upset with the way we were running. We just had to finish even though where we ended up was kind of a letdown.
"This is our second championship with this team and it means a lot. This is unbelievable. I can't say thanks enough to the folks at AutoZone coming on board to sponsor our series this year. This means a lot."
Fultz admitted he knows all too well how disappointed Norris was with his second-place finish in the standings because he was finished second in the Southeast Series standings on three occasions by a combined 23 points.
"This really means the world to me," Fultz said. "My race team is so good they make it easy on me as a driver. We had a great season even though we had a couple of bad races. In all honesty, this is the worst race we've had in five years. We just missed the setup. This is all going to sink in tomorrow, right now I'm just worn out because I didn't sleep at all last night."
Rounding out the top-five in the championship fight behind Fultz and Darnell were Erik Darnell in third, Kevin Prince fourth and Jason Hogan fifth.
"I came to the Southeast Series as a rookie from Ohio and nobody knew anything about me," Fultz said. "Now I've won 22 races to become the all-time win leader in the Southeast Series and nobody can take that away from me until at least next year. That just shows how good this team is. Even though we had problems a couple of times this year, this team overcame all the adversity that was thrown their way."
Justin Wakefield set the early pace after jumping out to the lead on the first lap while Fultz was trying to overcome a disappointing qualifying effort by making his way into the Top-10. Norris grabbed the lead from Wakefield on Lap 26, doing all he could do to keep his Southeast Series championship hopes alive when he put Fultz a lap down on Lap 45.
At the 50-lap mark, it was Norris still in command by nearly 11 seconds ahead of the top-five of Niessner, Wakefield, Hogan and Darnell. Norris saw his huge lead go out the window when the first caution flag of the night was thrown for debris on Lap 88. Shortly after the restart, there was another yellow flag that was brought out when Randy White went for a harmless spin off the second turn.
Darnell saw any hopes he had of winning his first Southeast Series title come to an end on Lap 97 when he had ignition problems en route to a 19th place finish.
As the laps wound to a close, the race became a two-man battle between Norris and Niessner until Niessner slipped by to take the lead for good on Lap 144. The top-five of the AutoZone 150 was rounded out by Wakefield, Prince and Hogan.