Gary Shafer Jr., of Stockton, went wire-to-wire to capture the victory in Saturday’s season finale 100-lap Stockton Late Model feature at the Stockton 99 Speedway while second-generation driver Joey “Jo Jo” Stearns, of Stockton, cruised home just behind him in second to claim the 2022 track championship.
Stearns began coming to the 99 Speedway to watch his father Joey Stearns race since he was a toddler. In 2017, at the age of 11, he made his racing debut in the Mini Cup class and won the championship in the division the following year. His father has given up driving to build and prepare Jo Jo’s race car.
Stearns entered Saturday night leading the season point standings by 20 over Stockton’s Ty Carlson and 24 over Shafer, but with double points on the line for the final race he needed to finish sixth or better to lock down the championship.
As Shafer and Carlson jumped out to the front on the opening lap Stearns gladly settled into the third spot where he was able to conserve his tires and stay clear of trouble. When Carlson began to fade about a third of the way into the race, Stearns carefully slipped underneath him to take over second place where he seemed content to remain to the finish.
“I know when I run with Ty it is going to be clean and I don’t worry about either of us spinning or moving each other. I always enjoy racing with him.” said Stearns, who spent the previous night leading Linden High to a 28-27 come from behind victory over Stagg High as the starting quarterback.
The lone yellow-caution of the race that came out on lap 75 gave Stearns the opportunity to line up alongside of Shafer on the restart and challenge for the win, but Stearns kept his eyes on the big picture and elected to fade back into second place where he coasted home about four car lengths behind Shafer.
“I wanted to play it safe for the championship, but it would have been nice to get a win tonight also,” admitted Stearns. “We had a decent car, but Gary just had a phenomenal car. He was really untouchable tonight.”
Stockton’s Larry Tankersley was able to slip by Carlson in the final laps to take third place in the race and secure Shafer the second spot in the season standings.
“We started off the season with a couple of wins, but they changed the rules a bit and we have spent most of the year adjusting to them and slowly making the car better and better. We finally have the car back to where it was last year,” explained Shafer, who beat Stearns in the final race last season to take the 2021 track championship. “When I started racing out here, I competed against his dad and I have a lot of respect for his family. I remember seeing him as a little kid in the bleachers and now he is the champion.”
After the race Stearns celebrated on the front straight with his family and crew, receiving a huge hug from his teary-eyed father. He reflected on becoming the 74th and - at age 17 - the youngest track champion at the historic quarter-mile oval which opened in 1947.
“It is so cool. Last year we were close, but this year we really found something and went along with it. Now I am actually in the books with the big timers,” said Stearns, before adding with a smile, “And now I’ve got something on my dad because he never won a late model title here.”
Josh Cross and his father-in-law Joe Flowers, both of Manteca, continued their season long dominance of the B-4 division by posting a one-two finish in their 30-lap feature that earned Cross his seventh win of the season and Flowers the B-4 season championship by 33 points over Stockton’s Andrew Rumsey.
“It was fun tonight. Joe was pushing really hard and I was waiting for just the right time to make a move around him and I finally got it,” Cross said. “It was wild weaving through the lapped traffic, but we have all been out here all year so I pretty much know what people are going to do and what line they will take when I get near them.”
With the championship on the line and having his hands full negotiating his way through traffic, Flowers was more than satisfied to shadow behind Cross to the checkered flag.
Cross and Flowers have become a mini dynasty in the B-4 class. In addition to this year’s championship, Flowers also won the season title in 2020 while Cross took top honors in 2019 and 2021 to give the duo four straight championships.
“I can’t believe it. Six years ago I had a dream to just come out here and race and now we have four straight. It is so cool,” Cross said.
Donnie Darter, of Valley Springs, put an exclamation point on his season-long mastery of the Bomber division by capturing his tenth win of the year on Saturday and he wrapped up the division championship by simply taking the green flag to start the race.
“It was pretty stress free tonight since I knew we already had things sewn up, but I still had to go for it because I can’t stand it if I am not winning,” said Darter with a smile. “I have to thank my crew and sponsor for making this all happen and keeping me in line.”
Natalie Harper, age 14 of Stockton, clinched the season title for the B-4 Junior division by outdueling Livermore’s Dustin King for her fifth win of the season in a 12-lap feature.
“This was pretty difficult to be honest. I had some pretty strong competition and a few other problems,” admitted Harper, who overcame a broken wrist from a midseason accident on her way to the championship.
The local racing season will conclude on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Stockton Dirt Track, located at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, with the 39th Annual Tribute to Gary Patterson, featuring the NARC King of the West Fujitsu 410 Sprint Car Series, Elk Grove Ford & Abreau Vineyards 360 Sprints and Hunt Magneto Wingless Tour finals.