Gary Shafer Jr., of Stockton, cruised to a second place finish behind winner Eric Nascimento Jr. of Lathrop in Saturday’s season finale 100-lap Stockton Late Model feature at the Stockton 99 Speedway to claim the 2021 track championship.
“This means everything to me. I’ve been out here watching my uncles and all the other great drivers since I was a kid,” said Shafer, who entered the night tied for the lead in the season points standings with Stockton’s Joey Stearns. “That was an awesome race and an awesome night.”
Shafer started from the pole of the 21-car field on Oct. 30 and grabbed the early lead before Nascimento swooped by him to take the top spot following a restart on lap 15. Keeping in mind the bigger picture, Shafer was content to stay put in second while Stearns remained mired in fifth place behind Stockton veteran Greg Potts and former three-time track champion Justin Philpott, of Tracy, throughout most of the race.
“We made the decision early to try and win the race, but once he got ahead of me we decided to let him go and hang on to what we had,” explained Shafer.
That conservative strategy paid off as Stearns was only able to move up to fourth in the final running order after Philpott dropped out with a mechanical problem in the closing laps.
“I have to take my hat off to Stearns. He was so consistent all year and a class act. It took me all season long, down to the final race, to finally get around him in the points,” said Shafer, who picked up three wins and two second place finishes over the final five events. “I still can’t believe I won the track championship. I feel like I am dreaming.”
It was also a satisfying finish to a frustrating season for Nascimento, the defending track champion, who competed sporadically at the 99 Speedway this year after a wreck destroyed his race car early in the season.
“It was a fun race. I was just cruising around until I had an opportunity to get him on the restart,” said Nascimento, who is heading to Phoenix next to run in the ARCA Menards West support race for the NASCAR Cup finale. “I want to thank my sponsors, crew and the fans for supporting us. It was a good way to end the season.”
The battle for the B-4 season title was equally tight with 2019 division champion Josh Cross, of Manteca, entering the night with a miniscule two point lead over his father-in-law and defending B-4 champion Joe Flowers, also of Manteca.
Cross gained the early advantage in the 50-lap main when he settled into second behind Stockton’s Mark Jacke on the opening lap while Flowers got caught up in a spin that forced him to the back of the 18-car field. Flowers eventually was able to work his way back through the pack and by midrace was sitting in third behind Jacke and Cross.
The pair managed to get around Jacke on lap 30 following a yellow-caution restart, setting up a mano a mano battle for the championship. But try as he might, Flowers was never able to make the pass for the lead as Cross deftly weaved his way through lapped traffic all the while fending off Flowers to pick up his tenth win of the season and lock down the B-4 season championship.
“Oh man, that was exciting. I was happy to see that caution because the 17 (Jacke) was checking out and it gave us a fresh start to catch him,” said Cross, who plans to move up to the Bomber class next season. “We started the season off a little rocky, but we ended up with a championship. There is so much hard work that goes into this and I can’t thank my family and crew enough.”
Flowers was undaunted after just missing out on the opportunity for a championship repeat as he celebrated with Cross in victory lane following the race.
“I did all I could and I am happy to finish second, especially after getting spun out on the first lap. We have brought it home to our family three years in a row now and next year it is my turn again,” he said with a smile.
The 25-lap Bomber main proved to be the wildest race of the night as the previous week’s winner Donnie Darter, of Stockton, Linden’s Allen Rider, Tyler Rodgers and Joe Reichmuth, both of Manteca, and defending division champion Jeanna Ramos, of Lodi, went at it tooth and nail throughout most of the race.
Following a late race restart, Darter and Rodgers tangled up while fighting for the lead. Rodgers survived the mishap, but lost several spots before he regained control of his car while Darter sustained enough damage that he was unable to continue.
Holding a healthy 16-point lead over Rider in the season standings at the start of the night, Reichmuth wisely elected to stay out of the fray for the remainder of the race. He offered little resistance as Rodgers repassed him in the closing laps and safely sailed to the checkers behind Rider and Rodgers in third to clinch the Bomber season crown.
“I was being a little cautious out there and when I saw those guys banging and bumping ahead of me I knew something was going to happen. I could have put my nose up in there, but I knew it was probably somewhere where it didn’t belong,” said Reichmuth, a former B-4 champion. “I can’t thank my crew and family enough for all their help. It has been one heck of a year!”
The victory was particularly gratifying for Rider who will be moving to Oklahoma this winter and was running his final race after five years of competing at the 99 Speedway.
“That was one wild ride tonight. The leaders took each other out and I’m glad I was able to hang in there and get the win,” said Rider. “It is a great way to go out.”
Stockton’s Jordan Lovelace missed out on a perfect season when he was upset by Manteca’s Jayden Cross in the 15-lap main for the B-4 Juniors, but his second place finish was good to clinch the season championship in the inaugural season for the class. It was the first career win for Cross, the son of B-4 champion Josh Cross, while Lovelace settled for 10 wins in 11 starts.
Third generation driver Kash Holman, of Salida, closed out the season with an easy victory in the Mini Cup feature to put a cap on his division title.
Local racing for 2021 will conclude this coming weekend at the Stockton Dirt Track, located at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, with the 38th Annual Tribute to Gary Patterson, featuring the Winged 360 Sprint Cars, NorCal Dwarf Cars, Magneto Wingless Sprints and Tri-State Pro Stocks on Friday, Nov. 5 and the King of the West NARC 410 Sprint Cars and Elk Grove Ford and Abreau Vineyards 360 Sprints on Saturday, Nov. 6.
In addition to all the on track action, racing legend Steve Kinser will be on hand Saturday to meet with fans and sign autographs from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. A member of the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, some of Kinser’s many accomplishments include an incredible 690 “A” Main victories and 20 championships in the World of Outlaws, competing in IROC, NASCAR Cup and the Indy 500, 14 National Sprint Car Driver of the Year awards and more than 900 feature wins overall.