Rodney Freitas is Merced Speedway's comeback kid.
After six years away from racing, Freitas clinched the 2013 International Motor Contest Racing Association (IMCA) track championship in the modified stock car division on Saturday night.
"The championship means a lot to me, especially because when I finally won, it was at home," Freitas said. "I tried so many years, and always seemed to wind up second."
Winning a championship in stock car racing requires a driver to have a different mindset. Consistent top finishes all season long can yield a championship. A driver's instinct is to go "all out" to win a weekly event, which could result in breaking or damaging the car and not finishing at all.
Freitas is known for his immaculate, well-kept car.
"The car was as ready as it could be going into the race," Freitas explained. "I knew I couldn't afford to have anything on the car fail if I was going to make a run on the championship."
Freitas had two rivals vying for the top spot. He was tied in points with Chowchilla's Jeff Streeter, and Merced's Mike Villanueva was just four points out in second.
Streeter had the misfortune of being involved in an early race pileup.
Freitas started alongside Villanueva in the fifth row. He had to finish ahead of Villanueva to win the championship.
When the checkered flag flew, it was Winton's Paul Stone who won the race, chased by Freitas and Villanueva.
Villanueva was happy for his longtime friend, Freitas. He was first to congratulate him in victory lane. The two Mercedians grew up watching races at Merced Speedway, and then lived their dreams of becoming drivers.
"As a kid sitting in those famous grandstands, I fantasized about racing," Freitas said. "I thought someday I would be champion."
Freitas started driving in a "modified" in 1992. He was in contention for a track championship several times at Merced and in Hanford. Before going on a six-year hiatus to spend time being a father, Freitas finished second in points at Kings Speedway in Hanford three times.
"I chased the championship, and chased it again and again," Freitas said. "Something always happened. It was frustrating."
As racecars have evolved technologically in the six years Freitas was gone, many were skeptical that he would be competitive this season.
But the comeback kid proved them wrong.
"I was really excited to be back," he said. "It took a few races to get used to the track it had improved and was way better than it was in the past. It's now wide enough to make passing easier."
The victory was extra sweet for Freitas because the reason he took a break from racing to be with his daughter, Jenna, now, 7 had paid off.
"She's my biggest fan, and she was there in the stands to see me race and win the championship. Nothing feels better than that."
Merced Speedway's "King of the Hill" battles were settled last Saturday night in thrilling side-by-side battles. Robby Jeppesen topped Mike Villanueva in the modified division in a photo finish. Jeppesen won by a foot. In the SportMod division, it was Bubba Nelson over Matt Sotomayor.
IMCA SportMod action saw Alex Wilson of Salinas take his first win of the season. Harley Turner of Los Banos came back after being collected in an early crash, to top Matt Sotomayor in a photo finish for second place.