DOUG COBY HAS really come of age on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
It's not just that he won his second Tech-Net Spring Sizzler 200 at Stafford Motor Speedway last weekend, or even that he's sits second in the Tour standings after two events, or even, really that he's managed to finish in the Top-10 in both races thus far in 2012, despite spinning on three different occasions in the season opener at Thompson International Speedway last month.
What's most impressive, really, is that Coby is now – finally, promisingly, fittingly – in a full-time ride on the Tour. Coby for the last few seasons has defined the term “journeyman” when it came to the stock car racing scene in New England.
Don't think so? The Milford, Conn., driver was like the Matt Stairs of the Whelen Modified Tour. Every month it seemed he was in the seat for a different team. By his own estimation, two years ago he drove for a total of five different teams on the Modified Tour, in weekly SK Modified competition on Connecticut's short tracks, or making a spot start in another series somewhere.
In 2012, Coby's owner Wayne Darling has committed to fielding the No. 52 for every race on the schedule.
“Now more than ever I'm (appreciative) of the opportunity,” Coby said the morning of the season-opening Icebreaker 150 at Thompson. “I don't go work on the cars. I'm not at the shop thrashing on the cars, but if I can hang out with the crew guys, it's fun. That's why we do this. It's Modified racing. It's not like we're in Cup. We're not trying to get anywhere.
“I didn't drive all those cars because I was trying to prove anything. I just want to race. If someone said, you can drive my car – anyone who asked me, I was honestly very lucky and had some good runs in them.”
Watching Coby's evolution on the Tour has been interesting, even to the most casual followers of the Tour. From the promise that was heaped upon his shoulders when he drove the Don King-owned No. 28 in 2003 and 2004 and then Curt Chase's No. 77 for the next two seasons, to his part-time rides with this team or that, to an impressive spot start at New Hampshire as a teammate to Ron Silk in 2010.
In those years, he went from budding superstar to hanger-on, to race winner to serious threat for a championship. It's hard to imagine his experience of bouncing from team to team, working with a number of crew chiefs and team owners and blending in to the a revolving door of scenery hasn't made him better.
“It's really just about having good relationships with people. You have to trust the people to do their jobs,” said Coby, who's career highlights are a pair of Spring Sizzler victories and a win in the inaugural UNOH Showdown at Thompson last September, which pitted the top teams in the Whelen Modified Tour against the top teams in the Whelen Southern Modified Tour. “They do what they do because they love it. It's just a matter of figuring out how you fit in with each team, each different set of guys.
“But that's what you do anywhere. It doesn't matter if you drive for one team or 20 teams in a year.”
Essentially, it's come down to a bit of survivalist instinct for Coby. He's more naturally talented than a good portion of the starting grid each week – and part of the fun of Coby is that he's not bashful about tooting his own horn to some extent – but he's also been able forge working relationships with a number of teams, both on the Tour and in various pit areas at short tracks.
“Look up and down pit road. Other than the family-owned teams, everybody's going to shift around,” Coby said. “You can only take each other's (crap) for so many years before you think the grass is greener somewhere else. That's what I've learned, actually. The grass isn't always greener. Everybody wants out of their ride because the crew chief is this, or the car sucks or the motor isn't great, and so they go to another team. Then two years down the road, they're out of that car.
“When you add all those (rides) up, I don't think it makes me any different. I don't think it made me a better driver, per se. But I think it helped that people saw I am easy to work with. With a one-race deal or a two-race deal, you have to be easy to work with. I don't know if I'm going to need that again.
“I didn't do anything on purpose. I didn't change who I am, or say, 'I have to be easy to work with.' That's just who I am.”
And now he's not just a guy who can win the big races, he's a guy who can win a Modified Tour championship.
AFTER AN ENTERTAINING and eventful ACT Late Model Tour race at Thunder Road last weekend, the stories from the Merchants Bank 150 centered around Brian Hoar winning his secondstraight race to open the season as he guns for a record ninth ACT championship and Wayne Helliwell Jr. once again turning in a strongrunner-up effort that could just have easily been a trip to Victory Lane.
But if you're looking for one more story that may have been glossed over, you have to look at another multi-time ACT champion: Jean-Paul Cyr is back.
Cyr is himself a seven-time Tour champion, but he's been through a couple of lean seasons on the Tour over the last few years. It's been since 2007, his last championship year, that Cyr seriously threatened in the standings (though he did win a popular Late Model championship in the weekly ranks at Thunder Road in 2009), but in 2012 Cyr is beginning to look like, well, Cyr.
Cyr is third in the ACT standings through two races, one of only four drivers to finish in the Top-10 in each of the first two events. More than that, anyone who saw the Merchants Bank 150 on Sunday knows that Cyr's was the best car all day long and would have won – had he not questionably pitted late, during the same caution as most of the rest of the leaders, though not until a lap AFTER they had all hit pit road ahead of him.
That aside, he still charged from deep in the field with less than 40 laps to go and finished fifth. If the race had been 200 laps instead of 150, he might still have won going away. Heck, if it had been 160 laps he might still have won.
Keep an eye on the No. 32 this season. If somebody can end Hoar's three-year stranglehold on the ACT title, it might not be Helliwell or Austin Theriault or any of the other trendy pre-season picks. It might just be Cyr.
SPEAKING OF BRIAN HOAR, he goes for a third straight ACT points win this Sunday at Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt. He won the Spring Green at the track last May.
Remarkably, Hoar – who has a record 35 career ACT victories, 16 more than second-place Cyr (19) – has now won back-to-back races six different times in his career, but he's never won three in a row.
The last ACT driver to win three straight was Ben Rowe in 2006.
I'VE REALLY ENJOYED a lot of what Travis Pastrana has brought to NASCAR thus far in his career.
He's a throwback to the era of “the most accessible athletes in sports,” going out of his way not just to sign the random autograph as he briskly walks toward a driver's meeting or only brandish a wide smile for the television cameras. He's authentic, likable and popular.
But his comments after the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Richmond International Raceway last Friday really shouldn't sit well with anybody in NASCAR's corporate offices. The lowlight of his day, said Pastrana following his 22nd-place effort in his Nationwide debut, was finishing behind Johanna Long and Danica Patrick. Or, as Pastrana referred to them “both of the girls.”
In a day where NASCAR is pushingdiversity – and with its K&N Pro Series East (Pastrana's full-time stock car home in 2012) having a third of its field each week comprised of women, minorities and drivers born outside the United States – talking about the “girls” as though it's inferred they are less talented is a slap in the face to the sport's progression.
Pastrana should have been more careful, which is a tricky proposition when you're praising someone for their refreshing authenticity. Still, Pastrana – an extreme action sports star – should know as well as anyone that it's a tough nut to crack into NASCAR when you come from a non-traditional background.
Comments like that don't help anyone.
YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the honey-glazed pork tenderloin, and don't forget to tip your waitress. Kid Rock is here, so stick around.