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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Fourteen. That was the amount of races that Matt Bowling originally intended to run in 2016.
He had no plans of chasing the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National championship and by no means expected to run nearly 50 races at eight different race tracks in four states.
Sometimes, however, plans change for the better.
That’s exactly what happened to Bowling, who captured his first NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National championship this year. He said a fast start to the year at his home track, Virginia’s South Boston Speedway, forced him to reconsider his planned schedule for the season.
“We really weren’t going for it. We were just going to run 14 races or so,” the 22-year-old native of Ridgefield, Virginia, said. “We started out really strong at South Boston and had a few wins pretty early. The national standings came out and we were leading, so we kind of kept that on our minds.
“We continued to have some success and we kept leading them. One thing led to another and we went to chasing it (the championship) pretty hard.”
Bowling ended up with 14 victories, 35 top fives and 42 top 10s in 49 starts at eight tracks across the Southeast aboard his No. 83 Ford that carried sponsorship from Hopkins Lumber, Bowling Logging & Chipping, Bandit Chippers, Bill Lemons, Clearway Logistics, Sellers Racing, Hedgecock Racing and Banks Racing Engines.
He also captured the track championship at South Boston Speedway and was crowned the Virginia champion on top of his NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National championship.
He admitted that he never dreamed he’d have such a strong season, much less that he’d capture the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national title.
“I was going to scale back my racing some this past year, but when you’re leading it like that it is hard to just quit. You’ve got to go for it. You may not get another opportunity at it,” Bowling said. “That was kind of our mindset. We went all in for it and we got it. It all worked out thankfully.”
While Bowling led the standings from start to finish this year, it by no means was a guarantee that he’d be the one standing at the podium accepting the trophy on Dec. 9 at the Charlotte Convention Center during the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards.
Late in the year Bowling had to contend with a pair of challengers, 2010 national champion Keith Rocco and young Midwestern late model ace Ty Majeski. Both were having strong years and were making up ground on Bowling in the final weeks of the season.
“The competition I was up against in the nation, as far as Rocco and Majeski, they were tough. You knew they are going to win races. It put us in a position where we had to win too,” Bowling said. “I felt like any one of us could have got it there for awhile.”
Bowling credited a big weekend with two weeks left in the season that saw him pick up victories at Southern National Motorsports Park and East Carolina Motor Speedway in North Carolina with helping him beat Rocco and Majesty for the title.
“We had one good weekend there with two weekends left and they didn’t (win),” Bowling explained. “Thankfully we did because that last weekend we really didn’t have a good night.”
In the end Bowling won his first national championship by just six points over Rocco, with Majeski finishing third, only nine points behind Bowling at the conclusion of the season.
“That was kind of the weekend that won it for us,” Bowling said about his wins at Southern National and East Carolina. “It could have gone either way there for awhile, but thankfully it worked out.”
Now a national champion, Bowling said he plans to scale back his racing efforts next year and doesn’t plan to chase another national title. His hope is to move up the NASCAR ranks and chase championships in other divisions, but right now nothing is set in stone.
“I don’t think you’ll see me go after it again,” Bowling said. “As far as my career forward, I’m trying to find something so I can move up. That’s kind of where I’m at.
“As far as the late model program, I’m planning to run a few races here and there and make sure my stuff is in pretty good order for the Martinsville late model race.”
Even if he never wins another championship, Bowling said he’ll always cherish the 2016 season and the success he had. His name will forever be in the record books as a NASCAR champion and no one will ever be able to take that away.
“It was a long year and a lot of hard work went into it, but I’ll definitely never forget it. It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Bowling said. “It may (sink in) when I hang up the helmet. I don’t know.”