Newport Speedway next stop for ARA Southern Thunder Championship

NEWPORT, TN - The battle for the American Racing Association (ARA) Southern Thunder series championship has been whittled down to a three-man fight, but there's a twist in fate in store for them all. The series' first visit to Newport Speedway...

NEWPORT, TN - The battle for the American Racing Association (ARA) Southern Thunder series championship has been whittled down to a three-man fight, but there's a twist in fate in store for them all. The series' first visit to Newport Speedway for this Saturday's Newport 125 will certainly make things interesting for Paul Kelley, Stephen Leicht and Michael Lance.

A strong challenge from the Newport Speedway regulars is expected to be led by 2001 track champion Brian Payne of Knoxville, TN. Recent winner Ed Surrett of Asheville, NC, and fast qualifier Ronnie Romines, a Ford driver from Knoxville are among the drivers also expected to hold a home-track advantage against the ARA touring professionals.

"Hitting the right setup will be really important," says Leicht, "especially for qualifying. I've got to qualify on the front row."

That's because qualifying on the front row is worth five bonus points, and with the introduction of the new Olympic Power Pole Award, setting the fastest time in qualifying is worth a $100 bonus.

ARA awards five bonus points to each of the front row qualifiers, and the top five qualifiers have the option of inverting, or starting five positions back in the field. Then they can earn up to 10 bonus points for passing. Regular points are awarded based on the number of starters (i.e., if there are 20 starters, the winner gets 20 points, second place 19, etc.).

"All we can think about is points," says Leicht, a 14-year-old from Asheville, NC, who has won four ARA Southern Thunder races this year in his #99 Action Racing Collectibles Chevrolet. "How we qualify, where we start, how we run the race all depends on the points situation."

The 20-year-old Kelley of Snellville, GA, leads the standings with 280 points. Leicht is second with 263 and Michael Lance of Dacula, GA (#04 Lance Used Auto Parts Chevrolet) is third with 251 points.

So, in effect, Kelley has almost a "full race" lead in the championship standings, but Leicht could make up some ground if the race attracts more entries. And since the Newport Speedway weekly Super Late Models are eligible for Southern Thunder competition, the race should attract a significant field of fast race cars.

Leicht has four Southern Thunder wins this year, to Kelley's three, but all of Kelley's victories have come at his hometown track - Peach State Speedway in Jefferson, GA. Kelley won the most recent Southern Thunder event, Sept. 22 with Lance second, Marc Brenner of Birmingham, AL, third in his #4 Walker's Game Ear Chevrolet, and Leicht fourth.

Kelley may have the upper hand in the championship chase as two of the final three races are at Peach State. The Southern Thunder Series continues with the World Crown 200 at Peach State Speedway in Jefferson, GA, on Oct. 27-28, and the Alabama 300 Nov. 10-11 at Montgomery (AL) Motor Speedway. The final event of the Southern Thunder season will be a 125-lap feature at Peach State Speedway on Saturday, Nov. 24.

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Series Stock car
Drivers Stephen Leicht