© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2002
Rex Struble and Jim Smith didn't expect to be battling for a Late Model championship.
Then again, both agree that such a scenario wasn't far-fetched either.
After 35 weeks of racing, Struble and Smith have emerged among the most consistent finishers at Citrus County Speedway. The drivers have raced hard for wins and, more often than not, have come home each night with something to show for their efforts.
"What you have is two guys who've run well all year," Smith said. "We've had about the same amount of good nights and bad nights.
"Now that we're down to the last couple of weeks, we're both still looking to win every race," Smith said. "It's made it fun."
Smith, who drives the Angelic Air/J.D. Smith Pest Control-sponsored No.9 car, enters Saturday's 30-lap feature trailing Struble by 116 points. That's not an insurmountable gap considering a victory would give Smith 100 points.
But for Struble, the question seems to be whether his machine will be up to snuff after crashing into the wall during last Saturday's 150-lap feature.
"It was pretty well bent up," Struble said. "Hopefully, we'll be good to go."
Though rivals on the track, both drivers share a friendly relationship off the asphalt. Much of that, says Struble, comes from the mutual respect they have for each other's skills.
"We haven't raced side-by-side that much this year, but when we have, it's been great," Struble said.
"There's not that many guys out there you can be comfortable going door-to-door with. Some of them don't seem to care what they do to you," he said. "But for us, the attitude is to see who's better that night."
Struble and Smith are relative newcomers to the division. Both joined within a few weeks of each other midway last season after competing in the Sportsman class.
Like the 25-year-old Struble, Smith, 28, began racing in his teens.
Starting with go-karts and moving to novice stock car competition, Smith wound up spending several seasons driving Mini Stocks and was crowned the division's 1999 champ.
After a couple of years in the Bomber class and Street Stocks, Struble switched to Sportsman in 1999. He has been a runner-up twice, and never has captured a title.
"A lot of drivers say that winning a championship is a little overated, and maybe it is," Struble said. "But to me, it says a lot about what you've put into a season.
"A lot of what I've accomplished has been because (car owner) Glenn Webster has kept me going every week."
Smith is quick to credit his team, especially his father, J.D., who has helped make the car more competitive.
"I come out wanting to win every week," Smith said. "But when it comes right down to it, my dad and my crew have been the real reason I'm where I am right now."