During the past few weeks, most of the attention has gone to the racing classes that had not yet been decided. Those close battles in which a winner is decided in the final race are always fun to watch. Fortunately, that was the case in all but three of the classes at Sunshine Speedway.
However, the top three classes _ Late Models, Sportsman and Open Wheel Modifieds _ were actually decided earlier in the season. The superior skill and intelligence these drivers used to claim their crowns is deserving of respect and, now, some attention.
The driver who dominated most in any class was St. Petersburg's Dwayne Dempsey in Open Wheel Modifieds. His lead was so commanding he could have taken the last three weeks off and still have won the points championship by a very safe margin.
Early in the season, very early, Dempsey's No. 10 actually did have some competition from the No. 22 of Lakeland's Dave Dunkin, who won a few early races. But then the engine claiming rule began to have its effect. Dempsey was its first victim. That might destroy the competitiveness and morale of some drivers, but Dempsey came back the next week and won the feature.
Once the claiming started, Dunkin began appearing on an infrequent basis. As time went on, other drivers _ such as No. 40 John Bellis of Brandon, No. 48 Mike Henderson of Zephyrhills and No. 44 Buzzie Reutimann, also of Zephyrhills _ had their day, but their best just wasn't good enough to overcome Dempsey's dominance. And when Dunkin returned later in the season, it was rare when he could beat Dempsey.
Dempsey was also the early leader in Late Models past the halfway point of the season. It seemed the man, No. 75 Dave Pletcher of Clearwater, who had won more championships than anyone at Sunshine and who built the cars that made others fast and famous, had lost his touch. However, midway in the season, Pletcher woke up. At the time, Pletcher was running third behind Brandon's Larry Moyer, No. 21, who was on a winning streak and was closing in on Dempsey.
Moyer had a heart-to-heart talk with his racing friend and former partner. "You're not racing to win," Moyer told Pletcher. "When I pull up alongside of you, you just let me go. That's not you, David. You're better than that."
It may have been the pep talk, or maybe the fact that his son "Buggy" had a serious chance of winning the championship in the Mini Stock class, or something else, but Pletcher began to race. First, he closed the points gap on Moyer, who had nearly overtaken Dempsey; then suddenly, Pletcher claimed the lead, while Dempsey and Moyer began to fade.
From that point on, Pletcher put on a show of dominance that led race fans to guess not if he would win the race but on what lap he would take the lead. Although he started near the back in virtually every race during the last half of the season, Pletcher finished first in 15 of the last 18 feature races. He proved the point _ he is a winner and still at the top of the heap.
No. 69 Sportsman driver Donny Stanford of Pinellas Park doesn't have the experience of Pletcher or Dempsey but he proved he had the talent, skill, intelligence and patience it takes to become a champion. It takes luck to win, too, but luck doesn't do any good if you don't know how to handle it.
Early in the season, Stanford had luck and almost all of it was bad. Although he managed to stay in the upper brackets of the points race, his car did not handle well and he had more than his due of breakdowns and accidents. He was persistent and stayed in the points chance and, finally, the car began to work. He drove hard, took a lot of chances and survived. By early May, Stanford was trailing last year's Sportsman champion, No. 22 Sam Coghill of Largo, by about 20 points.
Like Stanford and a handful of other drivers in the class, Coghill was capable of winning the feature on any Saturday night. However, with a comfortable margin in points, Coghill's philosophy was to drive smart and safe and finish in the top five. The idea was to let those who were trying to catch him, namely Stanford, make mistakes. The concept was working and working well, until May. Coghill had a few problems on the track and Stanford continued to run well. By the middle of the month, Stanford took a narrow lead _ his first of the season. Both continued running strong and by the end of the month, Stanford held only a two-point lead, which amounts to finishing only one spot ahead of Coghill in one race.
Then, Coghill was struck by appendicitis and missed one race in early June while he underwent emergency surgery. For most people, it would have been a disaster and the end of any chance at the championship. But after missing just one race, Coghill returned to the track and challenged Stanford for the lead, which had grown to 45 points.
To make a comeback, Coghill could no longer follow the conservative course. He had to race not just to finish well but to win as often as possible. That was where Stanford proved his intelligence and it won him the championship. Rather than get caught up in trying to beat Coghill in every race, he played it safe and finished races. Coghill often finished in front of him, although not by much, but Coghill had more breakdowns and accidents as he tried to make up the lost ground. By the end of the season, Stanford had stretched his lead over Coghill to more than 60 points.
Next year, Stanford will be the man to beat, and it will not be easy.