Champions Carry On Legacy of NASCAR's Pioneers

DJ Kennington

DJ Kennington celebrates his first series championship. (Photo: Matthew Manor/NASCAR)

DJ Kennington doesn’t even hesitate when he’s asked what it means to him to be a NASCAR champion.

“It means everything to me,” said Kennington, the 2010 champion of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1. “It’s what I’ve tried to do for as long as I could remember.

“I always watched the Daytona 500, and then the Cup races on Sundays, and I always wanted to be there. And now that I can actually say I’m a NASCAR champion is pretty cool.”

Winning a NASCAR championship puts a driver in exclusive company, one defined by excellence and achievement. It’s a bond that stretches from the top drivers in the sport’s earliest days on the beaches of Daytona to those that excel at their craft today on tracks throughout North America.

For the first time this year, Kennington and his fellow NASCAR touring and weekly series champions will share the stage and spotlight at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s fitting that the building constructed to honor some of NASCAR’s greatest will serve as the site for its most recent champions.

The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet is Friday, Dec. 10, and the NASCAR Touring Series Awards Gala is Saturday, Dec. 11. Both ceremonies will be streamed live on nascarhometracks.com beginning at 6 p.m. each night with the red-carpet event.

To celebrate those 2010 champions and the pioneers who helped lay the groundwork, NASCAR put together a very special project: A photo gallery celebrating the champions of NASCAR’s touring series and its weekly series national champion (Eric Holmes, Ryan Truex, Kennington, Bobby Santos, Burt Myers and Keith Rocco) by bringing them together with the championship drivers who came before them (Lloyd Dane, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, Jerry Cook and Richard Petty).

2010 Champions with NASCAR Pioneers

DJ Kennington - NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion

NASCAR Champions and Pioneers 
Junior Johnson with DJ Kennington at NASCAR Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. (Kate Gardiner/NASCAR)

When Kennington first started racing stock cars on Saturday nights at his local Canadian short tracks, he counted Earl Ross as one of his early mentors.

Ross holds a special place in the history of NASCAR and Canada – his win in 1974 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in a car fielded by Junior Johnson marks the only time a Canadian-born driver has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

“We had a great time with them boys,” Johnson said. “They were very intelligent. It was hard to believe they had learned as much as they did about the sport and NASCAR. Most of the guys that worked on the car were as good as the guys I had working on the cars. We were trying to teach them, and we learned a lot from them because they had studied the sport so much.”

Johnson, who won 50 races as a driver and six championships as a car owner, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this year.

For Kennington, the winning has come easy. It’s the championship that eluded him over his 17-year career stretching back to his days in the former CASCAR series. Most recently, he posted runner-up finishes in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in 2007 and ’09, and a third in 2008.

“That’s racing,” Kennington said. “For me, it just gave me that much more drive and determination. I just always moved on to the next season.”

Now he’ll never have to think about ‘what might have been.’

“It’s an honor you’ll never forget,” Johnson said. “You’ll think about it the rest of your life, about how you’ve been able to become the best out there at any given time. If you don’t, you’re going to leave something out of your racing career the rest of your life.

“Winning and being a champion is what it’s all about.”

Keith Rocco - NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion

NASCAR Champions and Pioneers 
Richard Petty with Keith Rocco outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. (Chris Richards/NASCAR)

Petty is the quintessential All-American driver who became a legend on the short-tracks. Of his 200 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career wins, 108 were on short tracks. For the NASCAR Hall of Famer from Level Cross, N.C., running more than 40 races a year was the norm in the early years.

That’s what makes Rocco such a throwback to the sport’s formative years.

The 25-year-old from Wallingford, Conn., has found success behind the wheel racing three nights a week by working on the cars the other four nights. With different cars for different tracks and different owners, that often means splitting time at multiple garages in an evening as a matter of course. Racing his asphalt Modified at Connecticut’s three NASCAR Whelen All-American Series tracks, Rocco has 53 wins over 189 starts in the last four years.

After finishing in the top four the previous three seasons, 2010 marked Rocco’s first NASCAR national championship.

“It’s just something you can only dream of,” Rocco said. “You don’t realize how much you have to put into it to get to where you are. It just makes you realize how much the payoff is – to spend the extra time, to go the extra distance to be that much better.”

For Rocco, who is far more comfortable in the garage than in front of the camera, the photoshoot with Petty was a unique experience. At one point, “The King” looked over at Rocco and teased him, “I bet you didn’t know about all the stuff you have to do when you won. You thought you just had to drive.”

It’s not something Rocco would trade for anything, though.

“There’s a lot of stuff you have to do to represent and be a champion, but to me it’s pretty cool,” Rocco said. “NASCAR does a lot for the champions and makes them feel like a true champion.”

As a footnote, Rocco has done something Petty did not: Win at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway. Rocco was the 2007 track champion, while Petty’s best finish in two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at the .625-mile oval was a second in the 200-lap event in 1970.

Eric Holmes - NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion

NASCAR Champions and Pioneers

Lloyd Dane with Eric Holmes in Phoenix, Ariz. (Chris Richards/NASCAR)

With each championship, Eric Holmes’ focus has changed. He delivered the first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West title in 2006 to car owner Allen Beebe, who had been part of the series for more than 20 years without winning one. Holmes returned to the series in 2008, hired by Bill McAnally to specifically to deliver the championship. As he raised the trophy again following the 2010 finale at Phoenix International Raceway, Holmes became just the seventh driver in series history to win three titles.

“You always want to win a championship, but you never think about winning two or three or four or five or anything like that,” said the Escalon, Calif., driver. “My goal is to win as many as I can and keep this thing going.

“I remember growing up, watching greats like Hershel McGriff, Jim Robinson, Ron Hornaday, Bill Schmitt and Rick Carelli, and always wishing I could be like them and race like them – and now I’m a three-time West Series champion.”

The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West is one of NASCAR’s oldest divisions, dating back to the days when it was known as the Pacific Coast Late Model Division. Its first championship was won by Lloyd Dane, who piloted his 1953 Hudson Hornet to the championship – in addition to driving it to and from the track.

“It means a bunch to me,” said the 85-year-old Dane, of being a NASCAR champion. “I could see what NASCAR was doing when Bill France Sr. first came into it. When I found out they wanted to come out to California, I thought it was great.”

Dane received that NASCAR championship trophy in Daytona from Bill France Sr. alongside Lee Petty receiving his Grand National Circuit trophy.

“It was awesome to me,” said Dane, who now lives in Concord, N.C. “I never thought I’d ever be in Daytona, let alone get a championship trophy. I was so proud.”

Dane returned to the West Coast and won two more championships in 1956 and ’57 to become one of NASCAR’s first three-time champions. Dane, who won his first NASCAR race at an old horse track in Phoenix, returned to Arizona this November to be on hand as Holmes joined him in that elite company with his third title.

Burt Myers - NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour champion

NASCAR Champions and Pioneers

Jerry Cook (left) with Burt Myers at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Kate Gardiner/NASCAR)

Burt Myers is very aware of the history of NASCAR.

His grandfather Billy and great uncle Bobby were pivotal figures in its formative years, racing at the venerable Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. The National Motor Sports Press Association’s annual Myers Brothers Award and Luncheon are named in their honor. Burt’s father, Gary, kept the tradition of winning at ‘The Stadium’ going, and passed down the love of racing to Burt and his brother Jason.

“You have to be able to sacrifice many things in your life to be successful,” Myers said. “It’s hard.

“I’ve heard stories from my dad, about when he was younger and some of the sacrifices he made. We’ve been blessed to be as successful as we are. I’m very proud to say I’m part of that legacy that helped start NASCAR and helped get it to where it is today.”

Jerry Cook is well-versed in the Myers’ history and that of Bowman Gray. Cook, now a competition administrator with NASCAR, had more than his share of success – including three wins – on the flat .25-mile oval. Cook, a NASCAR Hall of Fame finalist, won six NASCAR Modified Division championships during an eight-year stretch between 1971-77.

While Myers won his fourth weekly Modified division title at Bowman Gray this year, the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour title that had eluded him. That fact crystallized for him at last year’s touring series awards gala when he was reminded he was the tour’s most successful driver to never win a championship.

He filled that hole in his resume with wins in the final two races en route to the championship.

“I don’t think it’s really hit me just yet,” said Myers, who spent the last week attending the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet activities in Las Vegas. “It’s really given me a good idea of what I have to look forward to and I’m super excited about it.”

Ryan Truex - NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion

NASCAR Champions and Pioneers

David Pearson (left) and his restored 1937 Ford, with Ryan Truex at Pearson’s farm in Boiling Springs, S.C. (Kate Gardiner/NASCAR)

David Pearson’s name is painted on the wall at historic Greenville Pickens Speedway in South Carolina as the 1959 Late Model track champion. The ‘Silver Fox,’ who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, excelled on those short tracks before advancing to NASCAR’s top level in the 1960s.

"When I look back on my career, I have had many great moments, but I will always remember when I first started on the short tracks of the Carolinas - it was pure grass roots racing,” Pearson said. “It taught me a lot and helped prepare myself for the top series in NASCAR.

“I have a lot of respect for the young guys today who understand they must start from the bottom and work their way up the ladder. You have to earn it. There are some good, smart drivers out there today and I would love to race against them."

Greenville Pickens is the same arena where Ryan Truex has launched his NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championships each of the last two years.

Like Pearson, Truex, the 18-year-old Michael Waltrip Racing development driver and brother of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr., spoke louder with his driving talents than he did out of the driver’s seat. The soft-spoken Truex collected five wins and an astounding 17 top 10s in his 21 starts in the series. Even when his championship defense in 2010 opened with him involved in a pair of wrecks in the closing laps – bouncing off the same walls that bear Pearson’s name – he kept the car on the lead lap and brought it home 14th.

Truex’s championship run also included races at a pair of Virginia tracks – South Boston Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – and Dover International Speedway, where Pearson had success nearly 20 years before Truex was born.

Bobby Santos - NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion
NASCAR Champions and Pioneers

Bobby Allison (left) with Bobby Santos at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway. (Kim Tyler/NASCAR)

The end goal for Bobby Santos had never been about winning a championship. The third-generation driver from Franklin, Mass., has never thought enough of it to even run a full season. But when the opportunity presented itself – at the last minute – to drive for long-time Modified car owner Bob Garbarino, Santos didn’t hesitate. Santos drove the “Mystic Missile” to the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship, becoming the youngest champion in tour history and the first driver to win the title in their first full season.

“It’s really exciting to be a champion,” Santos said. “I’ve always looked at it as winning races and that’s all I ever cared about. I didn’t think it was much more of a deal to win a championship. Now that I’ve won one, I understand it a little more. It’s a full year of accomplishment. The (euphoria of winning) lasts longer.”

Santos said it really set in when two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion David Green called him to offer his congratulations.

“He said, ‘You’re in an elite group now being a NASCAR champion,’” Santos said. “That meant a lot.”

As did Santos’ photo with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, who raced at some of the very same tracks Santos ran on nearly 50 years later and competed against Garbarino’s drivers in the Modified’s early years.

Before his success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ranks, Allison won two NASCAR Modified Special Division titles in 1962 and ’63, and after the division was absorbed into the NASCAR Modified Division, he won the national championships there in 1964 and ’65.

"Winning the Modified championships were really important and special to me,” said Allison. “We used 1934 Fords and Chevrolets when they had to come from the factory and have steel roofs. We ran a lot of mixed shows and did pretty good against those other cars. I'll tell you how good we were: In 1962, we ran 84 races and I won 41 of them.

“I'm still very proud of what we accomplished in the NASCAR Modified ranks to win those championships."

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