By Eric Huenefeld
Director of Media and Sales, Rockford Speedway
Jerry Reed sang it. Alex Papini is living it.
The old song goes, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” It’s a phrase that perfectly describes the defending Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Model track champion so far in 2014.
For a fourth consecutive week, the Machesney Park racer parked his Chevrolet in victory lane after storming through the field and claiming another 30-lap feature event at Rockford Speedway Saturday, May 17, on Speedway Auto Mall “Salute to Military Night.”
Papini made the charge from eighth place Saturday, working past Jake Gille with six laps to go, en route to the checkered flag.
Gille wrestled the lead from pole-sitter Mark Hartline on lap three and settled into the top spot for several laps to follow. Behind him, the battle featured Papini, on a mission to get back to the front. Working past Jon Reynolds Jr., Wayne Friemund and Jerry Gille, Papini found himself in the second spot at the halfway point. Jake Gille’s lead was comfortable, but not insurmountable. Papini made small gains with each lap, finally closing to the leader’s back bumper with eight laps to go.
After two laps of hard, side-by-side racing, Papini maneuvered past Jake Gille with six laps to go. Papini was not yet out of the woods, as second-place Gille mounted a challenge with two laps remaining, getting to Papini’s bumper, but never closer.
The victory was Papini’s 16th late-model win in 13 months, while the second-place finish was Jake Gille’s fourth top five in five races. Three-time track champion Jerry Gille finished third, followed by Jon Reynolds Jr. in fourth and Wayne Freimund in fifth.
The Miller Lite American Short Tracker feature was one for the ages. Fifteen cars battled for 25 caution-free laps and, when the dust settled, only a few feet separated the winner from his top challenger.
Five-time track champion George Sparkman captured his second straight victory in the four-cylinder division, narrowly holding off defending track champion Nick Cina Jr. Sparkman started the 25-lapper in eleventh place, racing to the lead by lap 15. Behind him, Cina and opening-night feature winner Kelly Evink were charging hard.
Both drivers fought past former leader Tom Gille, and set their sights on Sparkman with time running out in the race. Cina stepped to the inside of Sparkman with three laps left, and the two raced through lapped traffic to the checkered flag. Sparkman held off Cina by half length at the line for the win. Evink came home third, with Gille fourth and Jason Dull fifth.
Stillman Valley’s Kyle McQuality was the top dog in the Kickstart Roadrunners Saturday night, racing past Dan Sander to take the lead in the 20-lap feature’s halfway point. The victory was McQuality’s third career Roadrunner feature win. Sander finished a season-best second and was followed by Dennis Smith Jr., who jumped into the Roadrunner point lead, with a third-place finish. Last week’s feature winner Trevor Robinson collected a fourth-place finish, while Ricky Nielson came home fifth.
Aaron Willis Jr. claimed victory in the 25-lap Illini Racing Series midget feature, which featured a wild last lap. Willis took advantage of a late-race breakage on leader and defending Illini midget champion Patrick Bruns, then held off Scott Koerner for the trophy.
Mick Ellis won the 25-lap American Super Cup Series feature, holding off Brian Baldyga and Erle Hoth for top honors. The race included a scary accident with seven laps remaining, when Fast qualifer Tony Rendina flipped his vehicle while exiting the fourth turn. Rendina was OK, but his car needed the the flat bed to exit the track.