HAMPTON – Moments after completing a final practice lap in his black 2010 Chevrolet Impala, Ricky Derrick sat in his hauler on the infield at Langley Speedway, smiled and shook his head in amazement.
You'd think after four seasons of record-setting success, the 31-year-old Newport News resident would take it for granted by now. But after going the first 11 years of his stock car racing career without a title, he still marvels at the first Grand Stock Division title he won, let alone the three since.
"We always won races," said Derrick, who has won 15 en route to four consecutive titles, a track record he shares with Modified driver Shawn Balluzzo. "But we never had the luck to hold up every single week to win a championship."
Derrick began winning races in his second season as a Mini (now Super) Truck driver in the late-1990s. He inherited the vehicle from his father, longtime Langley competitor John Derrick, along with some useful advice.
"He's a big part of the way I do things," Derrick said. "He taught me about being patient and saving your car.
"If you use up your car or try to drive through somebody, you can't finish a race."
Finishing is a Derrick strength, competitors say.
"He races smart and will just ride if he has to, so he finishes races," said Mark Claar, whose five wins in 2012 were second to Derrick's seven. "He has a lot of years in these cars and he's got a lot of good help, which is important.
"You've got to have someone to go to with experience. He goes to (seven-time Late Model champion) Phil Warren, and I know I wouldn't be as good without (former Grand Stock qualifying record holder) Gordon Weeks."
Derrick's primary help comes from Gene Nichols, a body shop co-worker at One Stop Auto, which sponsors his Grand Stock car. Nichols, he said, "Gives me a heck of a motor," and both benefit from the advice of John Coleman, who has done engine work for the Grave Digger Monster Truck team in North Carolina.
The partnership with Nichols nearly landed Derrick the Grand Stock title in 2006, their first year together. Derrick won six of 12 races, but lost the title by 10 points to Dean Shifflet after losing 48 points via disqualification for a camshaft that failed post-race inspection late in the season.
After Derrick took some time off for personal reasons, he returned with Nichols in 2009 and won his first title. He's won the three since, but it took until last year to convince him his luck had really changed.
He started the season in a backup car, was barely in the top five after four races, then ran off a string of four wins when his primary was ready. But he thought his title hopes were dashed in a wreck with Claar approaching the finish line with five races to go.
"He got underneath me in turn 3 then hit me in the quarter panel in 4," Derrick said. "I was completely sideways when I took the checked flag (for the win) and hit the infield wall.
"The car had to be towed off and I thought it was destroyed. We were both racing hard for the win so it is what it is.
"We had to put on a new snout and that's what made this last championship so special: we had to work our butts off for it."
And because he did, Derrick will have a chance to make more history. Both he and Balluzzo began their seasons on Saturday in search of a fifth consecutive title.
They are the only two with four in a row. Elton Sawyer won three straight Late Model titles in the 1980s and Danny Ray Baker won three in a row in Grand Stocks in the '90s, before C.E. Falk three-peated in his Late Model just two years ago.
The quest will be a stamina-tester for Derrick, because he will also compete in the Pro Six Division car owned by Neil Sipe and Ron McQuillen. And since the vast majority of his Pro Six races are scheduled for the same days as his Grand Stock races, Derrick will spend a lot of time in cars broiling at 130 degrees in the height of summer.
He isn't complaining. Now that he's on a roll, Derrick wants to drive as many laps and win as many championships as possible.
"I definitely want to get five in a row and be in the record books," he said. "For a long time I thought, `I just ain't got a championship in me. I just don't have the luck to do it.'
"Standing back four years later, I can't believe I've won four in a row. Getting that fifth one would be awesome."