By Brian Paglia
William Plemons III came back to Thursday Thunder after a 10-year hiatus not for the racing exposure, not for the chase of a points championship, but for the pure enjoyment of racing 10 weeks.
But, after a win and third-place finish in last week's double features, Plemons III has thrust himself into a tie with Jake Armstrong for the Semi-Pro championship going into tonight's season-finale.
"It fell in our lap," Plemons III said.
Of all the championship storylines set to unfold tonight -- Alex Coffey (Bandits) and Brian Meredith (Roadsters) giving the Southern Crescent champions for the first time in three years; Skip Nichols (Masters) tying Doug Stevens for most career championships -- no race will have more intrigue than the Semi-Pro feature.
The Semi-Pro division has had the most parity, and thus compelling points race, this season. Four different drivers have led in points for at least one week this season. As recently as week 7, Garrett Smithley was tied for the points lead. Now, he's 22 points behind the leaders and considered a long shot. Going into last week's double features, Mike Weed held a slim lead over Armstrong. Now, he's just two points ahead of Smithley.
Three different drivers have a legitimate chance for come away the Semi-Pro champion tonight: Plemons III, Armstrong and Luke Behnke, who is just six points back.
Yet, even though Plemons III goes into tonight's race with a measure of pressure unexperienced before, he's said he's not going to change his approach.
"We're just going to come out here and have fun and try to win it," Plemons III said. "Obviously, we're going to give it our best shot."
The draw for heat races will significantly impact how the championship unfolds, drivers said. Drivers pick numbers from one to 40. They hope to pick No. 1, which gives them the front position in their heat race and the best shot to land the pole for the feature race.
It's the part of the Thursday Thunder racing experience that can least be controlled. A poor draw can easily neutralize a driver with a fast car. In a division with so many cars equally capable in speed, getting prime position is paramount.
"It's really going to come down to who draws the best," Armstrong said, "because we're all pretty even speed-wise."
Speed has not been Behnke's weakness this season. He's routinely posted some of the fastest times across all Legends divisions.
Behnke said poor draws have hurt his chances at taking control of the points race. He has the most top-5 finishes in the division, including three second-place finishes, but has often been forced to navigate through the pack, which he's found challenging in his first year racing his Legends car.
"I think I've just had bad luck," Behnke said. "We've had the fastest car every week in the division. Really, I guess you could say it's the luck of the draw where you finish. We've drawn 30th or worse probably eight of the nine weeks and I've had to make my way back up (to the front)."
But, Behnke does have one advantage over his competitors: experience. Last year, he captured the Outlaws championship in the season's final feature race.
"You've got to be smart," Behnke said. "You really can't make mistakes and that's what I was able to do last year."