Keith Rocco bagged a prize of more than $20,000 for winning the Thompson 300 as part of the Sunoco World Series of Speedway Racing. (Nicholas Teto/YankeeRacer.com photo)
Keith Rocco bagged a prize of more than $20,000 for winning the Thompson 300 as part of the Sunoco World Series of Speedway Racing. (Nicholas Teto/YankeeRacer.com photo)

Rocco Plays Cards Right, Banks $20,000 Thompson 300

THOMPSON, Conn. – Keith Rocco played a winning hand worth more than $20,000 by making a late charge to win the Thompson 300 on Sunday at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park.

Rocco bounced back from a spin to take the lead from Jon McKennedy with 18 laps remaining in the event’s first edition since 2005 as part of the Sunoco World Series of Speedway Racing.

It was the final twist in an event that saw drama from the drop of the green. With 15 lead changes among eight drivers and compelling stories throughout the field, it was a fitting return for the legendary Modified event.

McKennedy was the dominant car in the first stage, leading 84 of the first 100 laps before the race’s third caution for a Ronnie Williams spin. Mike Christopher Jr. took the lead on the restart just before a turn-two pile-up that put Dave Sapienza, Williams, Andy Jankowiak, and Noah Korner out of the running while wounding several others.

Things settled down in the middle stage as teams plotted their pit stops and tried to plan the best strategy around the caution flags. McKennedy dropped back near halfway with a loose spoiler, which allowed Ron Silk, Justin Bonsignore, and Anthony Nocella to take turns at the front. After making repairs during a pit stop, McKennedy worked his way back to the front, snatching the lead from Nocella with just over 100 laps to go.

Reigning NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Bonsignore outgunned McKennedy to regain the point after Eric Goodale hit the turn four wall on lap 217. McKennedy then took it back following caution number 12 on lap 248 and started to pull away.

But with 28 laps to go, Rocco — who had been noticeably off the pace during the most recent green flag run — looped his No. 57 in turn four. Rocco turned the misstep into an opportunity by ducking onto pit road during the ensuing yellow for fresh tires along with Chris Pasteryak, Andrew Krause, Tommy Barrett, and Paul Charette — who had just gotten back on the lead lap after being three laps down at one point.

When the race resumed, Rocco and Charette both went into overdrive. Rocco was already up to fourth when Nocella’s car shut down six laps later for another caution, and after slicing to the second spot on the restart, he went after McKennedy. The multi-time Modified Racing Series champion parried Rocco’s first pass attempt with a crossover move, but Rocco made it work the second time to take the lead on lap 282.

McKennedy settled into second with Silk, Doug Coby, and Charette on his tail as they all tried to figure out their final move. But as the field got the 10-to-go signal, McKennedy’s car shut down, eliminating him from contention. Rocco easily got the break on the final restart and pulled away to claim the victory and the $20,000-plus prize.

Charette made a bold move inside Silk the final time through turn three to claim an unlikely second-place finish and a large prize of his own. Nocella rebounded to take fourth. Matt Swanson, Coby, Andrew Krause, Barrett, Pasteryak, and Bonsignore rounded out the top-10.

Jonathan Puleo capped his first year in the Sunoco Modifieds by holding off Saturday’s Triple Crown Series winner Todd Owen for an upset victory. Puleo grabbed the lead from Troy Talman on lap six of the 30-lap feature with Keith Rocco following his tire tracks to second. But instead of Rocco making a move on the youngster, it was Puleo pulling away as Rocco fell into the clutches of Owen.

Joe Allegro Jr. and Adam Gada did a tandem spin out of turn four on lap 19 to bring out the first caution, and after rain sprinkles caused a brief delay, the field re-racked for a restart. Ronnie Williams shot around the outside of Owen at the green flag and pulled alongside Rocco in turn three. But coming out of turn four, the two got together, and Williams rode the frontstretch wall to the start-finish line. Rocco’s car was also torn up with both forced out of the event.

Puleo and Owen lined up door to door on the new restart, and Puleo again got the advantage. Owens pressured him the rest of the event and took one last peek inside the final corner but could not stop Puleo from getting his first Sunoco Modified victory.

The second-place finish for Owen gave him the Triple Crown Series championship. Despite ending the race in the garage, Rocco won the season-long title, which is his ninth Thompson Speedway track championship and fifth in a row. Troy Talman came home third in the feature followed by Andrew Molleur, Mike Christopher Jr., John Lowinski-Loh, Joe Allegro Jr., Chase Cook, Tyler Barry, and Teddy Hodgdon.

P.J. Stergios took a dominating victory in the 25-lap NEMA Lites feature. Stergios moved to the front early and faced some initial pressure from Randy Cabral, who had won the NEMA Midget and Pro 4 Modified features the night before. But his bid for a weekend trifecta was denied as Stergios marched off and left him behind in a caution-free race.

The best battle was a fracas for fourth between Jake Trainor, Richie Morocco, Richie Coy, and Jim Santa Maria. Plainville, MA’s Morocco eventually broke out of the tussle and stole third from Kyle Valeri with two laps left for good measure. Valeri ended up fourth with Trainor, Coy, Santa Maria, Mikey Pernisiglio, Dylan Coutu, and Joey Bailey the balance of the top-10.

Paul Charette preceded his Cinderella Thompson 300 run by grabbing his third win of the year in a wild 25-lap SK Light Modified feature while Anthony Bello secured the championship. Following an opening-lap incident that saw Tyler Chapman smack the backstretch wall, Charette made a three-wide move on the restart to snatch the lead. Bello followed him through and eventually muscled past Charette for the lead on the 15th circuit.

Charette tried to counter a lap later, and when the two bumped entering turn one, Tyler Barry shot under both. A trio of lap 21 crashes then mixed up the field more than a blender as top runners Jonathan Puleo, Nathan Pytho, Steve Kenneway, and Jason Chapman were among those suffering misfortune.

On the third incident, where Albert Ouellette was sent to the inside wall, Barry also suffered a flat tire that forced him out of the event. That handed the lead back to Charette, who held off a charging Bello and Josh Carey over the final four-lap sprint. Puleo recovered to take fourth with top-10 finishes also going to Meghan Fuller, Mike Mitchell, George Bessette Jr., Amanda West, Jason Chapman, and Daltin McCarthy.

Dave Trudeau and Jared Roy maneuvered through a similarly chaotic 20-lap Mini Stock feature to claim the race win and the championship, respectively. Trudeau and Steven Michalski headed an 11-car lead pack early before Michalski and Roy bumped racing for the second spot. That sent Roy spinning out of turn four with eight laps complete and put both drivers to the rear of the field.

Scott Michalski and Tim Taylor got past Trudeau on the restart as Steven Michalski and Roy tried to race their way out of the back. Taylor swiped the lead from Scott Michalski at halfway as they left the pack behind. But when Scott tried to retake the point with three laps to go, he lost the handle in turn four and spun to bring out the caution. Taylor and new runner-up Charles Canfield then tangled in turn two on the restart as the field scrambled around them.

With that one-two punch, Trudeau suddenly found himself back in the lead — and he didn’t let it slip away this time. After Russell Barboza lost power on the second lap-17 restart, Trudeau beat out Rick Laflesh and Steve Michalski on a green-white-checkered finish for the victory. Roy took fourth to lock up the championship. John Bavolacco, Nadine Coates, Dylan Decoster, William Schoeler, Jeffrey Martin Jr., and Kyler Davis completed the top-10.

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