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Coming off the best season of his career – in which he won one track title, came within two points of claiming another, and earned the distinction of being the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Nebraska state champion – Bill Leighton Jr. set his sights higher.
The 26-year-old Omaha, Neb., driver entered the 2009 season hoping to chase the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship.
With just seven race weekends remaining, Leighton is in perfect position to realize that goal.
With third place at Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction Speedway Saturday, and a sweep of the twin 25-lap features at Omaha’s I-80 Speedway Sunday, Leighton became the third driver to clear 700 points in the season.
Leighton’s 747 kept him in third place behind points leader Keith Rocco of Wallingford, Conn., and defending champion Philip Morris of Ruckersville, Va. But more importantly, Leighton cut his deficit to Rocco by more than half.
“I knew going in, if I could stay consistent and finish in the top five week-in and week-out, we would have a chance,” Leighton said. “I knew I could get close. But I never thought I could actually get to it. Now it seems like I do have a shot. With the races we have left, it’s going to be close. I have to make the most of it.
“Now that it’s real, it’s pretty exciting.”
Leighton’s weekend allowed him to erase a pair of poorer finishes from earlier in the season. A driver’s top 18 finishes are counted toward U.S. state and Canadian provincial championships and the overall NASCAR Whelen All-American Series title.
Rocco stayed at 790 points after a seventh and third in the SK Modified Division on separate nights at the Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl and a 23rd at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway. Morris gained 14 points with a seventh-place asphalt Late Model run at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., which allowed him to drop a 14th-place run at South Boston (Va.) Speedway from July 3.
Andy Eckrich of Iowa City, Iowa, had a pair of wins and a second running his dirt Late Model at Dubuque Fairgrounds and West Liberty Raceway in Iowa to maintain his fourth-place spot with 672 points. And CE Falk III of Charlotte, N.C., grabbed his seventh win of the season at Langley (Va.) Speedway to remain in fifth with 655 points.
In Leighton’s double features at I-80 Sunday, he had started eighth and 12th. While he had the field covered in the first race, he had to track down Matt Buller to win the second. Leighton passed Buller, who is sixth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national points, with three laps to go and then had to hold him off when a caution on the final lap forced one more restart.
Leighton credits a deal reached in the off season that allowed him to update some of his equipment and get some new stuff for his ability to run for the national title. He leads the Crate Late Model Division at both tracks.
“I really understand this car I have now,” said Leighton, “how it works and what to do to make it work. Everything just seems to be going really well.”
An electrician by trade, Leighton has three track titles in his seven-year racing career. He has won two at I-80 Speedway and won his only one at Junction last season. He finished two points behind Todd Hipner at I-80 last year, but had enough combined points to win the Nebraska state title and finish 47th overall.
The deadline for races to count toward NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state and national championship points is Sunday, Sept. 13. The final points standings are scheduled to be released Wednesday, Sept. 16.
Track, state and province, and the national champion earn invitations to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Banquet in Concord, N.C., Friday, Nov. 13. The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion also earns a secure spot in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, to be held at the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.) Jan. 29-30, 2010.
Under the points structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner will receive two points for every car in the event up to 23 cars. Second place will receive two fewer points, and so-on through the field. For example, if there are 23 cars, the winner receives 46 points, second gets 44 and third 42. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 30 points, second gets 28 and third 26. Race winners receive an additional five bonus points.