At Last

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D.J. Kennington Finally Wears the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Crown

D.J. Kennington celebrates his title win at Kawartha Speedway.

With tears pooling in the corners of his eyes, D.J. Kennington unstrapped himself from the cockpit of his Castrol Edge Dodge on a late-September Saturday night at Kawartha Speedway and prepared to climb from the cockpit as the best stock car racer in Canada for 2010. Finally, he was champion of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Racing Series.

The dream of claiming that title started in 1994 when D.J. turned 16 on a Thursday and was behind the wheel of a Late Model at Delaware Speedway on Friday, winning a heat race the first time behind the wheel. Since then, the talented driver from St. Thomas, ON, has been capturing checkered flags and other championships on short tracks throughout Canada and the Northeastern United States and competed in Nationwide races with the NASCAR big boys, but his primary goal had proven elusive – to be the best in Canada.

Kennington saved his best performances for when it mattered most, winning two of the final three races to close out the season and win the title.The multiple ‘most popular driver’ award winner spoke about what it meant to finally reach the top of the mountain. “We’ve finished second seven times between the NASCAR series and when it was CASCAR. Since it started as NASCAR we’ve been second twice and third the other year, so it was so cool to finally get it done.”

Despite having a healthy points lead heading into the Kawartha event, Kennington wasn’t about to let up in his pursuit of the crown, “We were in a battle with Don Thomson Jr., and Kerry Micks one year and we all had a shot. We lost a motor early that day after being the fastest car all day. We had another year where we dominated the race and led almost every lap but couldn’t make up enough points to win the title.”

Kennington had always been quick at the 3/8th-mile playground of speed, and that success continued as he ripped off a pole-winning run in qualifying and led early. Despite having only to stay out of trouble to lock up the crown, he continued to battle towards the front and finished third. “We had a great car, then had a flat tire and had to pit out of sequence. We were trying to play it safe, and after that tire we just didn’t get the track position that we needed. We would have liked to close the season out with another win, but the championship was the big picture.”

The season began with an open test day at Delaware Speedway for the teams, and something was different in the D.J.K. Racing pit area. Following his well chronicled plethora of near misses, D.J. and his crew had a more pronounced ‘taking care of business’ attitude than in seasons past. It showed during that session as the #17 was over 2/10ths of a second quicker than anyone else throughout the day.
Kennington strikes a victory pose after receiving the championship trophy from NASCAR’s George Silbermann (left).
A few weeks later, those same teams converged on the oval near London, Ontario for the season opener at Delaware. All of the pre-season preparation for the D.J.K. Racing Team went out the window two laps into practice when the motor in the Castrol Edge Dodge let go.

The team brought their Dodge to the infield area, calmly slapped a new bullet under the hood, went out and blew the field away with a pole-winning run. In the race, he led the most laps and won for the second year in a row on the same surface he cut his racing teeth on. Kennington pointed to that day as the springboard to his title run, “We never seem to get out of the box well. Last year we won at Delaware, but the first race was before that at Ste. Eustache and we broke a motor. Every year we’re trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. The motor going in practice at Delaware was such a break.” He laughed and added, “Years ago it would have waited until lap two to blow up. I thought that start gave us so much momentum going forward, and that this could be our year.”

Things took a turn for the worse the following week at Mosport as Kennington got out of sequence on pit stops, and was shuffled back to 23rd. He would roar through the pack to finish sixth, and immediately looked forward to the track he has probably run the second most laps on, Ste. Eustache in Montreal. Kennington was able to pull off his second win in a row, in an admittedly third-place race car.

Fitzpatrick kept the heat on Kennington until the end of the season thanks to two wins and seven top fives.“We weren’t good enough to win, that’s for sure. There we are running third and then all of a sudden, Kerry Micks and Scott Steckly both left the bottom open coming to the white flag. Next thing I know we’re in victory lane,” he said.

Kennington followed that up with a third-place finish at the street course event in Toronto, which was as good as a win, considering winner Andrew Ranger and runner-up Jason Bowles were both road course specialists. Another road course was next at the City Centre Airport circuit in Edmonton, but a broken oil pump on the final lap dropped him from fourth in the race and to second in the championship to J.R. Fitzpatrick.

Kennington described the next event at Sun Valley Speedway in Vernon, B.C. as “the one that got away.” “We were on the pole by 4/10ths of a second, and led all but the last 30 laps. I made the call to pit early, and Steckly had the right strategy, because he had the tires at the end,” he explained. He only had to wait another four days to collect win number three, however, by capturing the checkered flag at the mid-week show at Auto Clearing Speedway in Saskatoon.

From there, the tour returned to Quebec for the next event at Trois-Rivieres, and Kennington admitted to making a big mistake in qualifying. “It was driver error and I got loose and hit the wall in turn one. I was sitting there in the car and must have had the most surprised look on my face, because I’ve never crashed in qualifying before, like ever! That day really showed what my guys were made of.
Kennington’s championship is a testament to the importance of consistency. He finished out of the top 10 only twice in 13 races.
“They worked on the car and we drove it up to a fourth-place finish. I’ve had such a good group over the years, and between Sammy Putnum and Charlie from Peter Gibbons joining us, to Doug Wight, who is my full-time guy and crew chief. You also have guys like Peter Hayes, and Doug Medlen. Doug’s dad was a big part of the team when I first started, and then Doug started working on my car as soon as he was old enough to help out,” he said.

On the oval at Mosport Speedway the following week, Kennington was on the pole, but had to overcome an issue late in the race. “Everyone checked up and I was spun out,” he explained. “We had to come from the back of the pack with 15 to go, and just didn’t have enough time.”

The bad luck continued during the Series final visit to Quebec, this time at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. While running in third position a fuel pump broke, which relegated Kennington to a 28th place finish.

Two weeks later at the bullring in Barrie, it came down to a duel between Kennington and Thomson for the win, which Kennington was able to secure by mere inches. “That might have been the most fun I’ve even had racing. The finish with Donnie was wild and we were able to win again,” Kennington remarked.

The annual trip to the east coast followed and the team was forced to overcome issues again at Riverside Speedway in Halifax. “We were junk in practice, but the guys went at it, and the car was great for the race.” When Kennington crossed under the flag first, it marked victory number five heading to the season finale at Kawartha Speedway near Peterborough, Ontario.

Kennington’s Castrol EDGE Dodge crew gathers their thoughts before the season finale at Kawartha Speedway. By this point in the season, the battle for the title had become a two-man race, as Kennington and Fitzpatrick traded the lead back and forth a number of times, and Fitzpatrick spoke about slugfest between the two, and their relationship.

“I’ve always liked racing with D.J. He’s one of those guys you can trust all the time when you’re racing him. There aren’t a lot of guys in the series that you can do that with. It kind of came full circle – us racing for the championship – last year in the first race of the year I was spotting for him, and only ran three races in the series.

“We’ve become tighter this year, and have spent more time talking, but not necessarily about the points. D.J. even dynoed my Street Stock motor for my new car. We gave him the best run we could for the title but our new oval car was a lemon and that made it very tough. If I was going to finish second in the championship, Kennington isn’t a bad driver to finish second to,” Fitzpatrick explained.

In the Kawartha 250, Kennington started from the pole and finished third, clinching his first NASCAR Canadian Series title. The final margin in the standings was 87 over Fitzpatrick and 95 over Steckly.

With five wins, and six poles, it was a tremendous campaign for the driver of the #17 Castrol Edge Dodge, and although the 2011 schedule hasn’t been announced, the season could begin again at Delaware.

Kennington will be carrying a two-year winning streak into that race, and if he can make it three in a row it just might put him on the right track to win championship number two.

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