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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In the 31-year history of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series only two drivers -- five-time series champion Larry Phillips and four-time series champion Philip Morris -- have been more consistently successful in national ranking than Keith Rocco.
Rocco, 27, of Wallingford, Conn., the 2010 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion, finished second to Lee Pulliam in the 2012 national point race. It marked the fourth consecutive year Rocco placed first or second in national standings. Since the current series format was introduced in 2007, Rocco stands alone in never finishing outside the top four in national ranking.
Even during a season that included some adversity, Rocco had staying power to contend for the national championship.
“The goals are to run as many races as we can and win as many races as we can every week,” Rocco said. “Every year now we’ve always been around the national point leaders at the end of the season.”
Rocco’s busy weekly pavement Modified division schedule includes a trio of Connecticut short tracks: Thursdays at Thompson International Speedway, Fridays at Stafford Motor Speedway and Saturdays at Waterford Speedbowl.
Running that circuit during the past six years, Rocco has amassed 91 feature wins in 245 starts for a winning percentage of .371. That record helped generate six NASCAR SK Modified track championships, five consecutive state titles and the 2010 national championship. In 2012 he led all NASCAR state champions with 43 starts, despite missing several weekends while recovering from a wrist injury and resulting surgery that required a significant cast.
The implications of missing some races are clear. He made seven less NASCAR SK Modified starts in 2012 than 2011, and for the first time since 2007 he did not win at least one track championship.
“We always plan to run the full schedule at all three tracks. We want to go out there and race, keep to ourselves and focus on one race at a time. We had a difficult year in points because of the injury. We dropped back to fourth or fifth in the national standings when I couldn’t race. We’re really happy to be back up on the podium in the top three in points.”
Rocco’s injury occurred in an accident during practice at Thompson on July 29. The injury required surgery and an initial “long” cast that made driving impossible. Several weeks later his recovery permitted him to be fitted with a shorter cast. He tried starting some races and turning the car over to relief drivers at the first caution.
“Starting a race then pitting and changing drivers even under caution was hard to do. In a 35 lap race, if there was a caution with five laps complete, that gives a relief driver 30 laps to pass the 25 cars he has to start behind. We won one race with Doug Coby relief driving at Waterford.”
Coby won the 2012 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship.
“When I got a short cast put on, I started a race at Stafford and spun out while running second,” Rocco said. He parked the car.
“A Late Model driver at Waterford, Jason Palmer, uses a smaller steering wheel and suggested I try it,” Rocco said. A smaller steering wheel radius can improve wheel-turning efficiency, benefiting a driver relying on one strong hand on the wheel.
“Jason’s steering wheel was two inches smaller. I called him on a Friday and asked if we could borrow it. It was just enough to make a difference. We won that night at Stafford and that was the highlight of the year. It was a big boost.”
Rocco is owner of the cars he races at Thompson and Waterford. John and Maina Rufrano own the car he drives at Stafford. Rocco also competed in an injury abbreviated first season in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour this year. Rocco raced in eight of 14 events and posted a best finish of third in the 200-lap Spring Sizzler at Stafford. He won the tour’s rookie-of-the-year award. In addition, he competes regularly in the NASCAR Division II Late Models at Waterford and Stafford. He said he averages about 100 races a year annually. His plans for 2013 remain the same.
“We’ll run as many Modified and Late Model races as we can next year,” Rocco said.
Rocco was honored for his state championship and runner-up finish in the national point race at the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards event in Charlotte, N.C., Dec. 7.
A driver’s best 18 results through Sept. 16 counted toward their states and national point totals, and
the champions are decided on overall point total. Once a driver reaches 18 starts, their total would increase incrementally as they replace some poorer runs with better results.
Under the point structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner receives two points for every car in the event up to 20 cars. Second place receives two fewer points and so on through the field. Race winners receive an additional five points. For example, if 20 cars are in the field, the winner receives 45 points, second place 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 35 points, second 28 and third, 26.
In addition to his national runner-up finish in the Whelen All-American Series, Rocco also earned Whelen Modified Tour Rookie of the Year honors in 2012. 122 West Photo.