By Justin Boyd
Killeen Daily Herald
In racing, it is rare for a car in the last position to garner more attention than the cars starting up front, but that's what happened Saturday night in the final IMCA Modified feature race of the season at Texas Thunder Speedway.
Accepting the challenge that IMCA Vice President of Operations Brett Root laid down prior to the event, Modified points leader Keith White placed his No. 1 car at the rear of the field.
Root said if the top two drivers in the point standings in both IMCA classes Modified and I-Stock started in the back and were able to win the race, IMCA would give an additional $400 to the winning purse.
With little to lose, needing only to finish in the top 20 to win his third straight Modified track championship, White gladly accepted.
"Brett Root wanted to help put on a show and he asked me to do it and I really couldn't say no," said White, who added that he enjoys the challenge of starting in the back. "I wish we would invert all the fields and let's all come from the back every once in a while. It gets old to start mid-pack every week and have to deal with just so many of them."
Starting 22nd, White darted his way through the field, dodging wrecks left and right, but could get no closer than his fifth-place finish. Copperas Cove racer P.J. Egbert, 2003 co-champion with White, led the final 11 laps en route to the win.
Hardy Henderson finished second in the overall standings, followed by Ben Ketteman, Greg Atwood and Allen Waltermire.
With 1,120 points, Trevor Egbert became the third consecutive Egbert to be named the IMCA National Rookie of the Year.
G.W. Egbert IV took the honor in 2002 and P.J. Egbert was the 2003 award winner.
In claiming his third straight track title, White won five races and had 17 top five finishes in 2004.
While a fourth straight track championship would be nice, White said he would approach next season the same way he did this season on a week-by-week basis.
"We started this year and we didn't know if we were going to run here every week," White said. "We'll just try to start the year and see how things are going and then determine if it's more important to come here and try to win a championship or try to make a bigger, higher-paying race. The big races are tough to make even, just to make some of them is a good deal. This year it was more important to us to go on and win this championship since we had such a good start."
The modifieds returned to the track later in the evening for the annual Race of Champions, which was won by Pat McGuire.
With the Street Stock championship clinched last week, Andrew Simmerman didn't even need to race Saturday night. He did, however, and he won. Driving the No. 8 car for likely the final time, the Evant driver led all 15 laps and scored his eighth victory and 17th top-five of the season. Brother Robert Simmerman finished second, followed by Albert Wininger Jr., T.L. Bright and T.Y. Hawkey, who was runner-up to Simmerman in the overall standings with 724 points.
"It was just phenomenal," Simmerman said of his championship season. "This is the first year I've ever been in this car. I drove I-Stock last year and this year I came back to Street Stocks. Man, the car just worked from day one. I just drove it, the car pretty much took care of itself."
Rather than coming back next season and defending his title, Simmerman plans to make the move to the Modified division in 2005.
"It's something I want to do," Simmerman said. "I'm looking forward to running modifieds. There's a lot of fast guys and big names in modifieds. If I can have half as good a season at least in the second year I drive a modified as I did this year, I'll just be tickled."
Finishing seventh in the overall Street Stock standings, James Tanner was awarded the 2004 Rookie of the Year.
Before the season, Killeen driver Anthony Otken predicted he would win the I-Stock title, Saturday night that prediction came to fruition.
Leading Chris Moore by just three points (631-628) heading into the finale, Otken knew what he had to do not let Moore finish more than three spots in front of him.
Jason Batt took the checkered flag, followed by Jason Bogard, Moore finished third with Otken directly behind him.
With the finish, Otken, in just his fourth year of racing, captured his first championship by a slim margin (668-666).
Of all the ways to win a title, Otken went possibly the toughest route with no wins and only five top-fives in 2004. Still, the title was his.
"I started the year out and that was the goal, to win the championship." Otken said. "I did it, I'm happy about it and now it's time to move on to a higher class."
Moore, despite coming up short in the points standings, was named the Rookie of the Year in the I-Stock class.
Jessie James Cox Jr. seemed more relieved than overjoyed after being crowned the 2004 Thunder Stock champion, and with good reason, as Cox and 2003 track champ Trevor Sparkman traded the points lead back and forth each week.
"I've been dreading this all week," said Cox, who had just a one-point lead (696-695) going into the race.
"I had butterflies all week."
Cox's anxiety was put to rest as Sparkman was forced off the track after suffering some damage to his No. 20 car after a crash with David Cowen late in the race.
Cox finished the race in the eighth spot with Sparkman taking 13th. Florence racer Jeff Medlock won the race.
"I'm glad the season is over," said Cox, who would like to run modifieds in 2005. "It's a big relief. It's been a good season, though. I owe a lot of this season to Ronnie Ellis and Peter Delevan. They drove my car when I had my heart attack and was out a couple of months. They kept the car running and kept me up in the points. My pit crew also did a great job all year.
"It was a total team effort."
Jacob Dunn, who finished 10th in the overall standings, took the Rookie of the Year honors.
With a fifth-place finish in the finale, Harker Heights driver Jason Hoffman won his fourth Mini-Stock title and second consecutive. But he'll be the first to tell you the championship wasn't originally in his plans for 2004.
"Going into the season, we didn't want to do points at all," said Hoffman who won three races and had 15 top-five finishes in 2004. "Halfway through, it kind of just fell in our hands. We really weren't going for it, we were just out there having fun every week.
"That's what racing is all about anyway."
Gatesville racer Billy White won the 15-lap event, holding off teammate Kevin West.
Kenny Ware finished second in the points standings with Rookie of the Year David Stewart third.
Keeping with the theme of the night, Hoffman said he too would like to drive a modified next season.
"It looks like the funnest class to drive in," Hoffman said, summing up his intentions for 2005. "But it's also the most expensive and right now we're just looking for sponsors."
Contact Justin Boyd at email@example.com