By ED TURNER
For the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger??
Chris Donnelly has been one of the most exciting drivers in Grand Stocks at Old Dominion Speedway for the last seven seasons. ?Every year, he’s had a fast car. In fact, he now holds the track record for the most wins (23) in Grand Stocks. ?He broke former Grand Stock champion Andreas Kestermann’s record of 22 wins over a month ago.
However, one thing has eluded Donnelly in the division: a championship. The closest Donnelly has come was last year when he finished second to Jimmy Hardin. Hardin, however, was dominant last year. ?
This season, Donnelly came in focused on winning a championship.
”I have my heart set on it and I’m going to do what it takes to win,” said Donnelly, who won the Speedway Sportsman championship in 1996.
In past seasons, Donnelly has been zeroed in on winning every race. For Donnelly, it was checkers or wreckers. Now, he has changed his philosophy to meet his dream of a championship.
”I’ve calmed down a lot,” Donnelly said. ”If I’ve got a second-place car, then I’ll finish second place. If I had been patient, I could’ve won a championship almost every year.”
Donnelly has always wanted the championship in Grand Stocks. But he never really concentrated on it before. ”I concentrated on winning races,” he said.
Donnelly has had a strong season thus far. He has had only two finishes outside of the top five: a 10th in the season-opener and an eighth last week after Willard Lawrence got into him with one lap to go.
Before last week’s race, Donnelly had eight straight races in which he finished either first or second. And he had one hot stretch where he had four wins and a second-place run.
Although the mishap in last week’s race likely cost Donnelly another win, it did catapult him into the points lead after track officials placed him in eighth and Lawrence in 10th after the wreck. ?
Donnelly, however, knows it will be tough to hang onto the points lead, with Lawrence having the stronger car lately.
”[Lawrence] is running good,” Donnelly said. ”We’re not far off. But he’s faster than us right now. He’s got the car figured out more. But we haven’t given up. We’ve just had a hard time coming off the turn and that’s what it takes to win. The car wants to get loose every time I get on it.”
Donnelly said that his car has not gotten slower. Lawrence, however, has gotten faster off the corner. ”He’s just caught up to us,” Donnelly said.
Lawrence has also been aided by a significant sponsorship from Jack Crocker’s team, said Donnelly.
Grand Stocker Ron Jardine, who believes that the championship run will be interesting in September, said Donnelly is a very good driver. ?
”He’s been the man that I’ve looked up to when I started driving,” Jardine said. ”He’s kind of the top dog [in Grand Stocks.] ?Certain people said he’s a little aggressive but I’ve never had any problems with him. He’s always raced me clean.”
Jardine added: ”Chris has obviously got his act together and has a good race team. ?It’s not a fluke that they’re running up front every week.”
Donnelly misses the glory days of Grand Stocks back in 1999 and 2000 when drivers like Mike Darne, Tom Dyson, Greg Compton, Stan Owens, Jeff Callihan and Mark Winstead competed in the division. ?
”We had some great battles,” Donnelly said. ”That was racing back then. It really was. Those boys were rough. They couldn’t pass you without hitting you. But that’s my style. It didn’t bother me.”
Donnelly still recalls a 100-lapper that he won against Greg Compton in 2000. The two drivers swapped the lead back and forth three or four times before Donnelly took the checkers first. That race was one of his two favorites.
The other occurred last season when Jimmy Hardin got into Donnelly early in a race and Donnelly had to restart in last. Donnelly put on a masterful exhibit of driving and came back and won the race. ?
”That was a good one,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly said that this season has been more competitive than last year since at least four cars can win: Donnelly, Lawrence, Jardine and Todd.
”I love racing them,” Donnelly said. ”I like it when it’s close like that.”
Donnelly said the hardest thing in racing for him is getting his car where he wants it.
”We’re chasing the car,” Donnelly said. ”That’s the most frustrating thing, making change after change and we’re still not where we want to be.”
Donnelly’s qualifying has also been off this year. He’s had one pole this year. Last season, he had seven. ?He said the Goodyear tires have less grip than last year’s Hoosier tires, making qualifying harder.
Donnelly is keeping his fingers crossed that the remainder of the season will go his way. ”I’m just going to go out there and finish the best I can and see what happens,” he said. ”I believe whoever finishes in the top three every race is going to win the championship. If we can do that, we’ll do all right.” ?