Regular-season team roping leaders Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira have been on one wild roller-coaster ride here at the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. After some pretty low swings leading up to it, Kaleb and Junior shot straight to the top of the tracks, rallying with a 3.3-second, world-record-tying run in Round 9. They lead an ultra-tight world championship race riding into Round 10.
After blasting straight out of the blocks with the 4.1-second win on opening night, Kaleb missed the right horn and was forced on an unwelcomed fishing expedition in Round 2. To his credit, he pitched his pride and refused to say die, salvaging a 22.2-second run to stay in the average in the early going.
Kaleb and Junior placed again in Round 3, then Driggers missed their fourth steer and Nogueira missed their trashy fifth one. They came back with checks in Rounds 6 and 7, then diverted big-picture disaster in Round 8. Their 11.6 obviously didn’t place in the round, but that was the least of their worries after what could have been a career-threatening scrape.
When Junior had a little difficulty dallying, there was a dreaded moment of déjà vu for those of us who witnessed Junior’s mentor and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes’s thumb fly in the heat of world-championship battle here back in 2005.
“We had a strong steer, Kaleb stuck it on him fast and I wasn’t ready,” Junior said of their Round-8 run. “I took an extra swing, and the steer started to get away from me. I had him by two feet, slipped a leg and tried to dally. My rope was running, and my hand kind of got tied to the saddle horn. My thumb and ring finger got it the worst. The fingernail on my ring finger is black.”
He sucked it up, dug a little deeper and backed in the box with his vintage fear-free intensity the following night. They hadn’t been liking Lady Luck much earlier in the week. But when buddy Jackson Tucker texted them their Round-9 draw, they lit up like the lights on the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Luke Brown and Jake Long had been 3.9 on him in Round 3 for the victory lap, and Junior Dees and Tyler McKnight were 3.9 on him for fourth in Round 6.
“We hadn’t drawn the best here this week, but we had our eyes on this steer,” Kaleb said. “When Jackson texted me tonight, I texted him back, ‘I’m in love.’ We were pretty pumped to have a steer we knew we could capitalize on.”
After having heck on the average front, Kaleb and Junior were down to only one play. Everybody loves a record, but that’s never the goal.
“Everything has to play out perfectly to get a record like this,” Kaleb said. “When you try to be fast, a lot of times you run over yourself.
“Junior and I are kind of known for being a fast team. We’ve won a lot of rounds here, but we’ve never gone that fast before. We’d been 3.3 one time at a jackpot—The Gambler—in Texas on slow steers. But it wasn’t worth $26,000.”
Kaleb and Junior’s 3.3-second scorcher tied the world record set here in 2009 by Chad Masters and Jade Corkill, which was matched by Brock Hansen and Ryan Motes at the rodeo in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2012.
“Tying the NFR and world record definitely ranks right up there among my best career moments,” Kaleb said. “But one steer will never set me apart from the rest. I have one goal in mind, and everyone knows what that is.”
Junior had a roller-coaster ride all its own in Round 9 alone. Scratch that, and make it a merry-go-round ride.
“Junior fell off the merry-go-round,” Kaleb said, trying to best describe Junior sticking the landing when his horse Green Card jumped out from underneath him as the celebration began.
“Seeing that 3.3 on the scoreboard was the best moment of my life,” Junior said. “A couple seconds later was the most embarrassing moment of my life. I fell off at the Finals. I saw the time, and everyone was screaming. I started to celebrate, my horse jumped forward and off I went. For a second or two, I thought I was going to hit on my back. At least I landed on my feet.”
As ugly as it looks, Junior said his hand doesn’t hurt much. He wouldn’t be whining if it did. Look for more of the same from these two tonight in Round 10.
“This is the exact same scenario I was in in 2012,” Kaleb said of the year he roped with Jade Corkill, and at the finish line Chad Masters and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s Round-10 money divided the teams at the top. Chad and Jade were that year’s champs. This year’s gold buckles are still up for grabs.
“Our only chance tonight is for us to win the round and have a couple teams fall out of the average,” Kaleb said. “You just never know how the chips are going to fall around here. All we can do is our best. That’s all anyone can ever do.”