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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In a season that was filled with emotion, Keith Rocco used an impressive final month to capture two more NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championships in 2017.
He won the final two SK Modified races at Stafford Motor Speedway en route to his third title at the half-mile and also was able to capture his sixth SK Modified title at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park. The two Connecticut track championships helped Rocco continue to add to his already stout resume in New England short-track racing.
"We race to win, that's all, we just want to finish the race and we want to win every one of the races," Rocco said. "Things are going so well that sometimes, you just think it's to good to be true."
The two championships puts Rocco second in the history of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I for track title's. He currently has 15.
All-Time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Track Championships
|Rank||Driver||Titles||Track(s) & Years|
|1||Joe Kosiski||17||Sunset - 1985, 1989-1992, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000; Park Jefferson - 1989, 1991-92; I-80 - 2001-02, 2005; I-70 - 1986, Lakeside - 1986|
|2||Jeff Strunk||15||Grandview - 2000, 2002-05, 2007-09, 2011, 2014; Big Diamond - 1994-97|
|Keith Rocco||15||Stafford - 2008, 2010, 2017; Thompson - 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2016-17; New London-Waterford - 2010-11, 2013-16|
|4||Jeff Aikey||13||Farley - 1996, 1998-2001, 2003-04; Butler County - 1999-2000; Dubuque - 2003-04; Hamilton County - 1995; West Liberty - 1997|
|Donny Reuvers||13||Elko - 2000, 2005-12; Raceway Park - 2002, 2005-07|
|Larry Phillips||13||Lebanon I-44 - 1993-96, 1998; Bolivar - 1989, 1994-95, 1997-99; Lakeside - 1991-92|
|Ted Christopher||13||Stafford - 1987, 1996, 2000-01, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014; Thompson - 1988-89, 2002, 2010|
At Stafford, Rocco captured his third career track championship this year. He started the season by scoring top 10 finishes the entire first half of the schedule and found himself leading the title chase heading for the second half. However, Rocco had some bad luck in late August -- and he lost the points lead in the process.
The turning point in the Stafford title chase came with just two races left to go. Even though Rocco had collected finishes that were enough to keep him in the title fight going for the stretch run, he turned things to a new level, simply by bringing a different car to the track.
"It took a lot of consisntency to win the title," Rocco said. "We started the year off strong and we finished second through fifth almost every week, we were just missing that win early on. We got banged up towards the end of the year and we struggled pretty good there for a few weeks. With a couple of races to go, we decided to bring our newest car over there and we just cleaned house with it. The car we ran all year, we ended up finding out that the clip was a little bit tweaked and were trying to adjust for something we weren't really going to fix. Bringing that new car there, it really seperated us from everyone else and allowed us to win."
The final race of the season, the annual 40-lap NAPA Fall Final, saw Rocco battling Chase Dowling for the championship crown. Rocco entered the race four points up on Dowling, looking to lock up the title and hold off the charging Dowling, who is just 19-years-old. He accomplished his goal by capturing the final checkered flag of the season and not allowing Dowling to do anything to stop him.
"We didn't have much of a point lead and I knew I had to finish on Chase's bumper at least," Rocco said. "We both got tangled up early in that race and I just charged to the front. I knew if we were out front, it was going to be the safest place for me to be. If we were leading, there was no math that needed to be done."
Following the 2017 season, Rocco is third on the all-time Stafford SK Modified wins list with 45. He sits two wins behind Bo Gunning and 64 behind Ted Christopher. His third track championship allowed him to become only the seventh driver to win three or more titles at Stafford. He joins the likes of Geoffrey Bodine, Christopher, Mike Christopher, Bugsy Stevens, Gunning and Bob Potter.
"Every time you win something it's special," Rocco said. "It just kinda seems like we are getting to that point where we are starting to seperate ourselves from everyone else and we are putting ourselves in a different category with those drivers that have gone down in history. It's pretty cool."
At Thompson, Rocco was able to finish inside the top five in all but one race. He won the title by just seven points over Todd Owen. The championship was the sixth career for Rocco at the .625-mile Connecticut oval.
"The Thompson title was tough, with only seven races and them awarding heat race points -- it's always the same guys in the top three. It's very hard. You just have to go out there and try to win every heat race and every race that you can," Rocco said. "It's really hard to separate yourselves -- the competition is so close. It's the same three cars finishing in the front. The one night that we got wrecked, we were able to piece it back together and get out to turn some laps. That probably made a big difference at the end."
Rocco has always had a knack for the high-banks of Thompson.
"When I started racing SK Modifieds at Stafford, we decided to go to Thompson for the Thompson 300 and the first time I ever went there it was my rookie season," Rocco said. "The first time I ever raced there, I finished third. I always loved the track -- the high speeds, the high-banking. The challenge of passing cars is second-to-none, there really isn't two grooves. It's one and done. You have to get in, clear the guy and get going. You can't be wasting any time or losing momentum."
Much like Stafford, Rocco entered the season-finale at Thompson, the Sunoco World Series, in need of a good run if he wanted to accept the crown. He had a larger points lead at Thompson, but Owen, his closest competitor, won the 30-lap race. Rocco ended up finshing third, which was enough to clinch the crown. But contact with Dowling while battling for the lead almost saw the entire season go up in smoke.
"I had a pretty big points lead, I didn't have to rush and I took my time getting out front, I didn't have to put anything at risk. I picked and chose what I wanted," Rocco said. "At the end of the race, you get other guys that come there and they aren't racing for points. The World Series used to be a race that you had nothing to worry about because it was non-points, but it's not that way anymore. It's just tough when other guys show up and they just don't care about the points."
This season, Rocco put together another impressive list of accomplishments. But overshadowing those feats was the passing of one of his close friends, Ted Christopher. The modified veteran was killed in a plane crash en route to a Whelen Modified Tour race at New York's Riverhead Raceway on Sept. 16.
"To be able to do this for Ted, it's awesome. Ted and I had a realationship where if I couldn't win, I wanted him to win it and I think it was vise-versa," Rocco said. "Ted would have been right there down to the end at Stafford fighting me for it. He was looking to set another record.
"It's sad, because if he was here to witness it, he would have his jokes and his comments. It's the little things like that -- it makes you think -- he always had something to say, no matter what it was. He always made people laugh."
Rocco worked with Christopher on his pit crew for years before he switched gears and became one of his closest competitors on the track.
"When my brother and I worked on Ted's car, we were there witnessing everything and we were a part of the team," Rocco said. "The first year I worked with him was when he won the Whelen All-American Series championship -- he won something like 30 races that year, it was just insane. As we were getting our start in modifieds, it was just incredible to see someone win as many races and he did and to be a part of it was amazing. He included us in everything.
"When I went out racing on my own, all I knew was to win races. I knew the way he operated and I knew the drive he had to win races. That kind of plays in a part in the way I approach my racing -- the way I handle my career is based off of him in a lot of ways; I learned a lot from him."
Without his family, Rocco wouldn't be where he is today. The support from them is not taken lightly.
"There are so many sides to having the family there. When I race as much as I do, I don't get to spend a ton of time during the summer with my kids and my wife. To have them at the track and have them being brought up the way I was brought up, they live at the race track and they go to all the races. My son is going to be four in January -- he is really starting to get it and he wants to start working on some of the stuff," Rocco said.
"There are those nights that you can't control -- those times when you have a bad nght and you just want to forget about it and move on -- having the kids and the family definitely takes it all into perspective for you. Wanting to win as much as I do and having the fierece competition in me -- when you have a bad night, you can just go in the house and spend time with your family. It allows you to put everything behind you."
All of the accomplishments are something that Rocco is obviously extremely proud of. But what's next? Is there any possible way he could top what he has already done?
"They say every good thing comes to an end -- but we used to be dominant at Stafford: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 -- we were just dominant there and we won everything there was to win," Rocco said. "We took a dry spell and struggled there for a while and this was the first year we really were back on the right track there. I think a great end to a season means a good start to the next season."
Keith Rocco takes the checkered flag in the final race of the 2017 season in the Stafford SK Modified championship run. Jim Dupont