Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Big league driver at home in NASCAR's minor leagues

MARTINSVILLE -- He's Crash Davis in a fire suit, an absolute marauder in the minor leagues.

The one difference? Philip Morris doesn't aspire to be anywhere but where he is. The highest levels of -NASCAR are no longer the goal; instead, they're a reminder of why he loves competing in the circuit he does.

On Wednesday, Morris earned his fourth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship in a six-year span. That's the title given to the top-performing Late Model racer at your local Saturday-night track -your Motor Mile Speedway, your South Boston, your Langley.

Your minor leagues of racing.

The Ruckersville driver got official confirmation Wednesday of his fourth title. He was thrilled, of course - "It means four times what it meant to win one," he said - but he was hesitant to try to put his accomplishments into any kind of historical perspective.

"I try to deter having anybody research it and tell me where we stand as far as the stats," said Morris, 46. " I just notice that if you start relishing what you've done, and maybe start being satisfied at where you come from, maybe that's all you're going to do. With the guys that I race with now †if you get satisfied with where you're at, you're just going to get left behind.

"Right now, I'd just like to see how far we can go and not really look back until finally I hang the helmet up."'

Fine, then. Allow me.

Only one man in the 30-year history of the Whelen All-American Series has won more national titles than Morris: the late Larry Phillips, who captured five championships. Nobody else has more than one.

Morris' 2011 season will be remembered as one of the most dominant of all time. He won 19 of the 22 races he started at South Boston. Nineteen of twenty-two.

The other three were near-misses: A blown engine and a flat tire foiled him when he was leading, and he wrecked once while battling for second.

Morris is getting to the point where he has to dig pretty deep to establish goals. After winning last year's Virginia Is for Racing Lovers 300 at Martinsville Speedway - considered the annual Super Bowl for Late Model lead foots - only the loftiest of aspirations makes sense.

"I've never won this race after winning the national championship," he said, "and I've been here three other attempts to do that."

Never has he been so confident, though. Morris has a car owner he loves (Jim Dean), a sponsor he adores (Clarence's Steak House) and a crew chief he trusts (H.C. Sellers). Not that he doesn't throw some of his own money into the operation, too.

"I wish that were the case," he said with a smile, when asked if he's finally free of pouring his own money into racing. "No, I'm still investing in the racing, and I feel like I probably always will. At this level, it just takes support from so many others along with your own support. And this year, I worked the hardest in my business to do my part and put my share into this team.

"And I think it makes a difference. When you put a driver that's invested financially, it's just that much more commitment when he gets out on the racetrack."

Morris said he wants to compete until he's not competitive anymore. That seems a long way off. And if his forays into the Nationwide and Truck series have taught him anything, it's that this is where he belongs.

"Maybe it's more selfish than anything else, but this fits me," he said. "First and foremost, I'm a family man. I'm a small-town, family guy who has three kids that would just much rather not sacrifice that family home life and still be able to get to race. So the Whelen All-American Series is almost designed for me.

"I can go race on Saturday. I can be home all week. I can go work my job [as a trailer business owner] 9 to 5. I got to taste the other side. I got to find out what it was like to run in Nationwide. †I just found out that that's not really where I'd like to be. It's definitely fit for some of these younger guys, and they don't have kids yet and they can go do the jet-set thing, but for Philip Morris, this series is perfect for me. And I hope it just lives on forever."

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