CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For two years running, Lee Pulliam has taken the stage to deliver the national champion's address at the awards banquet for NASCAR Whelen All-American Series awards banquet. This go-around, though, the battle to the top had its own rough-and-tumble brand of adversity, true to the nature of weekly short-track racing.
At the end, Pulliam etched his name among the elite in short-track racing history, joining NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Larry Phillips and Philip Morris as multiple winners of NASCAR's national championship.
"Just seeing the banners on the wall and knowing that mine is only the third one that's got multiple years on it, that's pretty special," said the 25-year-old Pulliam, who notched 27 victories in 47 starts at four different tracks to collect the maximum number of points in the national race. "Just going down the list of them, it's mind-boggling for me."
Track, state and provincial champions at NASCAR's grassroots, dirt-under-the-fingernails level of racing dressed up for a night of celebration Friday at the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center. But even as the weekend warriors that make up the heart of stock-car racing wined and dined, there was still a visual reminder of how the All-American Series can stoke rivalries and spirited competition.
On Pulliam's No. 1 car on display in the back of the ballroom was a quarter-sized decal on the car's right-front corner -- a bull's-eye with the No. 08 of rival and national runner-up Deac McCaskill.
Pulliam and McCaskill went head-to-head numerous times at Whelen All-American Series tracks in North Carolina and Virginia, and as the season wound down and the pressure ratcheted up, the hard-nosed racing between the two escalated. It boiled over in a 300-lap Late Model Stock race at Martinsville Speedway, with McCaskill spinning Pulliam in a clash for the lead and the latter taking a swipe at the former's window net under caution.
In Friday night's more formal settling, both were able to chuckle -- a little -- about their budding rivalry, but each acknowledged the talent of the other in accepting their accolades.
"It was a lot of hard feelings and hard battles there at the end of the year," said Pulliam, who claimed he wasn't sure who placed the bull's-eye decal on his display car. "Things got pretty interesting between me and him, and we've always battled clean and we both started getting rough at the end of the year and getting pretty physical. I was just able to come out on top more than he was."
Pulliam said that his rival's success motivated him throughout the season and that in most other years, McCaskill's points total would be enough to claim the national crown. The 35-year-old Raleigh, N.C., product posted 18 victories and 38 top-10 finishes in 42 races, pushing Pulliam -- sometimes literally -- for race wins across two states.
"It's hard," McCaskill said with a grin. "It's hard to keep a friendship and be competitors. We learned something this year about that. Should be interesting for next year. I enjoy racing with him, he's a tough racer. Some of my most memorable wins this season are ones (where) he ran second. Outrunning him means a lot to me, so looking forward to it."
Harold Pulliam, Lee's father and car owner, and crew chief Winston Brooks were recognized with special awards as part of the championship team.
Former national champion Keith Rocco edged NASCAR Next member Ryan Preece for the last spot among the national top three, marking the fifth consecutive year the Connecticut driver has made it to the national podium for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series awards.
Jay Beasley, the Nevada state champion, was honored with the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award. The 21-year-old Las Vegas native, who was given the award by NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Darrell Wallace Jr., posted an eight-win season to become the first African-American champion at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Todd Stone, who became a first-year Division I license holder this season at Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., was named national Rookie of the Year at age 45 after amassing 10 wins in 17 races.
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