Mike Stefanik closed out 2006
with his ninth NASCAR championship.
When the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season opens this
Saturday with the Icebreaker at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway,
he’ll have some familiar challengers. Between Stefanik, Tony Hirschman, Todd
Szegedy, and Jerry Marquis, the veteran foursome have accounted for every
championship back to 1995. They also occupied four of the spots in the top
six of the final standings last season.
Tour veteran Eddie Flemke Jr. has been runner-up two of the
last three years, while last year’s third-place, Ted Christopher, has
finished in the top four in points in each of the last five seasons.
“There’s a lot of guys that are aimed and loaded,” Stefanik
said. “And so are we.”
Counting the 55-year-old Reggie Ruggiero, who ran a partial schedule last
season, and the five accounted for 41 of the 80 possible top five spots last
Stefanik’s latest title run was a blueprint in how
consistency wins championships.
He opened the season in Victory Lane at the Icebreaker. While
he didn’t win again, he compiled a remarkable 10 top five and 15 top 10
finishes in 16 races to outdistance Flemke by more than 200 points.
Even so, Stefanik wasn’t pleased.
“That’s great and wonderful and you can take some pride in
that as a team we made the fewest mistakes,” Stefanik said. “It’s a pride
thing. One win? That doesn’t cut it.
“When you have other teams out there winning multiple races
and you win one race and you’re the champion? That’s kind of sickening. …
Not a lot of people were impressed with our performance last year, including
To that end, Stefanik has been impressed with the overhaul
the team and the cars have undergone in the offseason.
“We have definitely raised our package,” Stefanik said.
“Everything about our car is cleaner, neater, lighter, stronger. … It’s
fine-tuned, like a jeweler’s watch.”
But even as the Old Guard maintains its excellence, the next
generation has begun to make its mark.
James Civali captured the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award as
a 23-year-old and was a consistent threat to win. He nearly grabbed his
first victory at New Hampshire International Speedway, only to break through
a month later at his home track of Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway.
Zach Sylvester, 25, finished 2006 by matching his best season
finish with a third-place at Stafford’s Fall Final. He finished ninth in
And the 24-year-old Matt Hirschman knows what it takes to win
a championship. He served as crew chief on his father’s Whelen Modified Tour
title teams in 2004 and 2005. In his rookie season behind the wheel, Matt
Hirschman had five top 10 finishes. He showed his potential following the
end of the NASCAR season, when he went out and won the North-South Shootout
at Concord (N.C.) Motorsports Park and then backed it up with a win at the
inaugural Mason-Dixon Meltdown at South Boston (Va.) Speedway.
In addition, Jimmy Blewett, 26, will join his older brother,
33-year-old John Blewett III, in running a full season on the Tour. Last
year, the pair combined for four wins and nine top fives.
Like the roster of drivers, the 2007 NASCAR Whelen Modified
Tour schedule features a little of the old and some of the new.
Beginning with Sunday’s Icebreaker, the season includes five races at
Thompson. It will conclude with the World Series Oct. 14. There will also be
four races at Stafford. Tour staple Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway will return, as
will two races at New Hampshire International Speedway and the annual
combination event at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway Sept. 1.
The Whelen Modified Tour will also venture to the Midwest,
running at the ½-mile Mansfield (Ohio) Speedway.
New this season will be three “Flash” events, which
incorporate twin qualifying races with a sprint format main event. The Flash
events – at Wall Township (N.J.) Speedway, Twin State Speedway in Claremont
(N.H.) and Riverhead – were implemented as a cost-containment measure for
the promoters of smaller tracks who wanted to host NASCAR’s open-wheel
Christley/NASCAR WMT PR
April 9, 2007