You’d think Philip Morris would be used to this by now.
After all, the 53-year-old from Ruckersville, Virginia, has carved out a résumé nearly unmatched in NASCAR short-track racing history. And yet, when it was made official Wednesday afternoon with a congratulatory phone call from NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell, a reflective Morris was still awed by the moment.
“It means that much,” Morris said. “It’s as if we were winning our first national championship.”
It isn’t Morris’ first. It’s his fifth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I national championship. And that puts him in rare company, matching NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, the late Larry Phillips, for the most national weekly series championships in NASCAR history. Morris won his titles in 2006, 2008-09 and 2011 before taking a semi-retirement hiatus. He returned in 2016 and finished sixth in the points last year.
“I just have a much bigger appreciation for what was accomplished,” said Morris after his time away from chasing the national crown. “Plus, I get to be mentioned in the same sentence as Larry Philips. That’s always a good thing.
“I don’t think I deserve it, but I think it’s amazing. That guy is a legend. I’m just glad to be in his company.”
Morris accomplished the feat this year with remarkable dominance and consistency. He rolled off nine wins in his first 12 starts and led the national championship points standings wire-to-wire. He finished with 23 wins, 28 top fives and 31 top 10s in 35 Late Model Stock Car starts at Virginia’s South Boston Speedway and Dominion Raceway, North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway and Southern National Raceway Park, and South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Morris also claimed his sixth Virginia championship.
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Morris finished with 670 points, easily outdistancing fellow short-track stalwarts Steve Carlson (623) and Keith Rocco (621).
Carlson, the 2007 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion, had nine wins, 15 top fives and 19 top 10s in 22 starts racing primarily at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway. He also raced at Wisconsin’s Madison International Speedway.
Like Morris, Carlson and Rocco have made their name as one of the best short-track racers in NASCAR history.
Carlson won his sixth Wisconsin championship and holds a four-point lead with one race remaining in his quest for a seventh Late Model title at LaCrosse. In addition, the 61-year-old driver from West Salem, Wisconsin, has five NASCAR championships in the former Midwest Series to go with four from its predecessor, the ARTGO Midwest Seres, and was the 2009 ARCA Midwest Tour champion.
Rocco tallied 10 wins, 17 top fives and 21 top 10s in 27 starts in the SK Modified Division at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway and the Sunoco Modified Division at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park.
The 33-year-old Wallingford, Connecticut, driver claimed his 10th Connecticut championship. The 2010 national champion holds a 48-point lead heading into Thompson’s 56th annual Sunoco World Series in October as he looks to claim his 16th career NASCAR Division I track title. It would give him sole possession of second place all-time and put him one behind the record set by Nebraska’s Joe Kosiski (17 titles from 1985-2005).
It is also the 11th time in the last 12 seasons that Rocco has finished in the top five in the national standings, and marks the eighth time since 2009 that he’s finished in the top three.
RACING REFERENCE – NASCAR WHELEN ALL-AMERICAN SERIES NATIONAL STANDINGS:
NASCAR uses a driver’s best 18 finishes from any sanctioned track within the state to determine the State Champion and the best 18 finishes from any sanctioned track in North America to determine the National Champion.
The crowning of U.S. state and Canadian province champions is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of NASCAR and carried on until the advent of the weekly series in 1982; It was resumed in 2007. Past champions include Ned Jarrett, Glen Wood, Ralph Earnhardt, Wendell Scott and Richie Evans.
The fact that it was Carlson and Rocco chasing him weighed on Morris’ mind, even has he held a sizable summer lead.
“We worked so hard for every point,” Morris said. “That’s just the veteran side of me, where I’ve been in tight battles where we had a lead before and saw it close up at the end. Maybe we worked harder because of what I learned in the past.”
Morris put together a stretch run from 2006-11 when he won 74 of 159 races (46.5%) and his four titles. But following the final one, he stepped away from full-time competition to focus on his business, Trailer Town USA in Virginia. Over the next four year, he ran just 25 races. He came back and finished 32nd in the nation in 2016 before moving up to sixth last year.
This season, he focused on reclaiming his former glory.
It hasn’t been an easy comeback.
“I didn’t realize the price I’d have to pay, not just on the national level, but just to be competitive at our local track,” Morris said. “It as so much more work to get back to being competitive physically and mentally and the equipment. Keeping up with the tires and track surfaces and engines — it was like I was starting over.
“I’m not going to say I took it for granted. But I didn’t realize how important it was for me to continue.”
Morris didn’t win his hometown track title. That went to Peyton Sellers, who claimed won his fourth track title at South Boston. The 2005 national championship finished fourth in the national standings with three wins, 18 top fives and 18 top 10s in 21 starts at South Boston and Langley. Nick Panitzke, who is chasing Carlson for the title at LaCrosse, finished fifth with five wins, 14 top fives and 18 top 10s in 20 starts at LaCrosse and Madison.
Ronnie Williams finished sixth in the national standings and has already clinched the SK Modified title at Stafford.
A quartet of Modified drivers from North Carlina’s Bowman Gray Stadium rounded out the top 10: Tim Brown, Burt Myers, Jonathan Brown and Jason Myers. While Burt Myers won his ninth track title at the historic Winston-Salem oval, Brown claimed the North Carolina title by five points.
Morris, Carlson and Rocco will be joined by the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series U.S. state and Canadian province champions, track champions and other special award winners on Friday, Dec. 7, as part of NASCAR Awards Charlotte.