USAR: Champion battles to repeat

Champion battling personal expectations, stiff competition in repeat bid Longs, SC-Sitting on pit wall with his shoulders slumped and driving suit tied around his waist, Clay Rogers could barley muster a smile. He didn't look like a driver...

Champion battling personal expectations, stiff competition in repeat bid

Longs, SC-Sitting on pit wall with his shoulders slumped and driving suit tied around his waist, Clay Rogers could barley muster a smile.

He didn't look like a driver that had just finished third in the season-opening race at USA Int'l Speedway. And he looked nothing like the driver that celebrated mightily at the same track three months earlier after winning the 2004 Hooters Pro Cup Series title.

Why the dismay?

It's simple.

Pressure!

Not pressure from his team, sponsors or crew, but from within.

"I'm putting more pressure on myself this season than I ever have since I've been racing," said Rogers, driver of the No. 44 Johnny's Suzuki/Baird Transport Ford. "I think I let that show too much after the race in Lakeland. We finished third, but we had a lot of things go wrong with the car during the race. The third-place finish almost felt like a 30th-place finish because we came in with such high expectations, especially after we were so strong at every Lakeland race last year. That just shows the level of competition this season. We were only off just a little bit and we finished third. But we weren't even a third-place car this time around. We lucked up and finished third. The pressure is definitely on us to repeat as champion, especially with all the new competition coming in."

The influx of Cup-backed teams and high-profile rookies, combined with a slew of grizzled Pro Cup veterans, only adds to the tension of Rogers' bid to repeat as Pro Cup champion. But if Rogers can pull off the repeat feat in arguably the most competitive field in Pro Cup history, the residual effects could boost him to another level.

"I would sure like to think [winning the championship again] would open some doors, but I'm beginning to wonder what it takes to get to the next level anymore," said Rogers. "I know it wouldn't hurt my chances. I went to a couple of Busch races last year, and I was surprised by the number of higher-ups in the motorsports community that followed the Hooters Pro Cup Series. I walked around the garage area [at the Busch races] and people I didn't know came up and said they had been watching me on [SPEED Channel]. As long as people are talking about you, you always stand a chance to jam your foot in the right crack."

But don't expect Rogers to "crack" under the strain of trying to keep his name in the mind of "Big Three" owners by being the best on the Pro Cup lot.

After all, the 24-year-old won one of the most pressure-packed championship battles in HPC Series history last year, edging Benny Gordon by 18 points to become the youngest Pro Cup champion.

That was last year, however. And about the only remaining from last year's championship team are Rogers and mentor Bill Boger.

"About half of my guys moved up to NEXTEL Cup or Busch," said Rogers. "People have got to move up, and I understand that, but we've brought in some really good people to fill their spots. In the past, we've had one go-to guy on the team. But with the group we've got now, we don't have problem sticking a wrench in anybody's hand."

Though his team is new, the No. 44 crew seemed to have no trouble with their first showing at USA Int'l Speedway. During their first under-pressure pit stop, Rogers' crew picked up two positions on pit road. And Rogers believes this is only a sign of things to come for the Johnny's Suzuki/Baird Transport Team.

"I already feel like our team is the most organized," said Rogers. "I think by the third race we'll be one of the strongest-if not the strongest-cars on and off pit road."

With unwavering focus, a competent crew and committed car owners, Rogers' foundation appears strong enough to withstand the weight of a championship repeat.

While pressure can be a leading cause in destruction, it also is the main source of creating a diamond.

-usar-

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Series Stock car
Drivers Clay Rogers