Eric “Bubba” Nascimento Jr., of Manteca, turned in a near flawless performance to earn a dominating victory in the “Night of Champions” 100-lap Stockton Late Model (SLM) feature at the 99 Speedway on Saturday night.
In only its fourth year on the schedule, the annual celebration of past champions at the historic quarter-mile oval has become one of the highlights of the local racing season. This year’s event was staged on Aug. 1.
Although participation was dampened this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, three families that are considered racing royalty at Stockton – the Strmiska’s of Manteca, the Belletto’s of Modesto and Philpott’s of Tracy – all fielded a car for the event.
Family patriarch and four-time Stockton 99 track champion Harry Belletto thoroughly enjoyed the sights, sounds and fumes in the pits as he sat watching his sons Steve and Jeff Belletto, both former Stockton track champions themselves, help prepare his old #74 race car for his grandson Nic Belletto.
Despite not having raced since he had major back surgery in 2013, Belletto, age 77, noted that he has never officially retired from driving.
“First off, I am just glad to still be on upside of the ground instead of the other way around,” he joked. “Although I have not raced since my surgery, I still think I could drive the car and though I won’t say I would be as fast as I was before, I think I could still shoe it and give these guys a good run.”
Later Belletto shared some of his memories with the 500 or so fans in the grandstands from the start/finish line on front straight before the main event.
“It is always a thrill to come back here. I had my favorite times racing here at this track,” he told the crowd. “One of my fondest achievements was to finish 1-2-3 with my boys on three different occasions in the Fourth of July race. I am so proud of that.”
The 17 car field in the SLM main was led to the opening green flag, appropriately enough, by 2017 and 2018 track champions Arron Shankel, of Lodi and Sam Solari, of Escalon.
Solari jumped out to the early lead as Manteca’s Guy Guibor and Nascimento gave chase. Guibor would slip under Solari to take over the lead on lap 12 and Nascimento would follow suit two laps later.
A strong yellow-caution restart vaulted Nascimento into the top spot on lap 20. Guibor desperately tried to stay with him, but Nascimento gradually pulled away over the final half of the race as he deftly snaked his way through lapped traffic. Guibor spent the final 20 laps holding off a hard charging Cody Potts, of Stockton, for second place while Shankel and Stockton’s Gary Shafer Jr. rounded out the top five.
“It was a good run for us, but Eric was just a little better tonight,” stated Guibor. “He did a great job getting through traffic and was able to put a gap on us.”
It was the second consecutive win at the 99 for Nascimento who now holds the lead over Solari in the season points battle.
“I always love to race the Strmiska’s. I have grown up with them and to beat Guy is special because he is one of the best,” said Nascimento. “This is the biggest win of my career and I can’t thank my family and crew enough for all the hard work they have put into this car.”
While the SLM feature lacked drama the Bomber main, scheduled for 25 laps, more than made up for it.
The nonstop action included three-wide racing, several daring passes and on two occasions, the race leader heading to the pits with a cut tire from heavy contact.
On lap 23, Troy Walz, of Valley Springs, spun out on the front stretch while race leader Justin Scantlen, also of Valley Springs, tangled with a back marker in turn #3 allowing Jeanna Ramos of Lodi to take the lead and ultimately the win thanks to a checkered-yellow.
Rookie Nick Hall, of Stockton, took advantage of a slower car to pick off race leader Mathew Richardson, of Manteca, and snare the lead on lap 20 of the 30-lap B-4 feature. Hall would then hold off Mark Hunt, of Galt, to notch the first win of his career. Joe Flowers of Manteca saw his streak of five consecutive B-4 victories in 2020 come to an end when he damaged his steering while trying to move up through the pack early in the race. Although Flowers was able to remain on the track and limp to the finish, he was never a factor after the incident.
Racing is scheduled at the 99 Speedway over the next three Saturdays with the Tom Manning Memorial open wheel program featuring the Gunslingers Winged Sprint Cars, BCRA Midgets plus four other divisions on Aug. 8 and the Stockton Late Models, Bombers, B-4 Cylinders, Mini Cups and Bandoleros competing on Aug. 15 and 22.
COVID-19 continues to inflict racing casualties as the NTT IndyCar Series recently announced it was cancelling its west coast swing which included the Portland GP on Sept. 13 and a doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca on Sept. 19 and 20. The series is hoping to schedule additional races later this year on the Indy road course to meet its goal of a minimum 14-race season in 2020.