July 19, 2012

BUMP STOPS: Modified Modifieds, The Oxford 250 And Rallying Back

It's Thursday again. Time to take the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

IF WE COULD just take a quick look back at last week's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it certainly can't hurt to mention what a fantastic NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event it was on Saturday.

Seventeen lead changes over the final half of the race. The winningest driver in Tour history taking the checkered flag by the closest margin of victory in his career. The spec engine versus the built engine, the halftime break, the race between the old guard and the new guard in Modified racing.

You hear a lot of talk in the garage area about how “NASCAR is killing this series,” but it certainly looked alive and well in the Town Fair Tire 100 on Saturday. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to advance an agenda, plain and simple.

First, on the spec engine program being implemented by NASCAR.

The talk all night on Friday after qualifying was how Ron Silk – one of only two drivers in the field utilizing the spec engine – was four-tenths of a second faster than anybody else in qualifying. If that's the case, then what's holding teams back from buying one themselves? The entire debate led to an underground uproar about how now teams using traditional motors built independently were going to have to buy the spec engine just to be competitive.

Maybe that's true. If it is, it's coming at a cost of roughly half what it costs to have a motor built.

If the notion is that suddenly longtime engine builders like Billy The Kid or Petit are going to lose business, well, that's not exactly true, either. According to one NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver – where the spec engine has become more the norm than the exception, even among teams with Sprint Cup Series backing – local engine builders will still turn a profit on the spec engines. Someone, after all, needs to assemble and maintain them.

As for the halftime break Saturday, it did change the racing. With so many caution periods in the first half of the event, and only two after it, tire strategy wasn't a factor. However, as Mike Stefanik said after winning – he knew that he didn't have to save anything. Go as hard as you can for 50 laps, bolt on four fresh tires without losing any track position, and go as hard as you can for another 50 laps.

What fans saw was all-out racing from start-to-finish, and not just for the final 20 laps. The lead pack of 6-10 cars stayed as a pack throughout the afternoon – and on the final lap no fewer than six drivers were legitimate threats to win.

Then there was the added bonus of having the series veterans like Silk, Stefanik and Donny Lia mixing it up with relative newcomers to success at New Hampshire like Rowan Pennink, Doug Coby and Ryan Preece.

It had been several years since we saw a race this good from the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It's no coincidence that the race came in light of changes from NASCAR this season at the track – and not in spite of them.

THERE ARE TWO marquee Late Model events in New England each season – the three-year-old ACT Invitational at NHMS and the midsummer tradition at Oxford Plains Speedway, the TD Bank Oxford 250.

The 39th running of the TD Bank 250 is slated for Sunday, and a who's who of Late Model racing in New England is among the contenders for the second-richest short track race in America. The overall purse for the TD Bank 250 is bigger than those of either the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., each December or the People's United Milk Bowl at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in the fall.

There are ACT Late Model Tour standouts like Brian Hoar and Joey Polewarczyk Jr. to consider. There are two-time TD Bank 250 winners Eddie MacDonald and Ben Rowe trying to join an elite list of three-time 250 winners in Dave Dion, Mike Rowe and Ralph Nason. There are up-and-coming talents like Nick Sweet, Austin Theriault and Ben Ashline. Then there's the list of Oxford Plains Speedway weekly competitors such as Shawn Martin, T.J. Brackett and Travis Stearns.

And we haven't even mentioned nine-time Oxford track champion Jeff Taylor, who has yet to win an Oxford 250. Or 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne.

The format is unique, of course, and plays as much a part in the race's outcome as the talent and equipment on the race track. There are no time trials and relatively few provisionals to fall back on for more than 70 cars trying to qualify for a starting field of less than 40 – it's all determined by a luck-of-the-draw heat race lineup. Making matters worse – it all happens in about a seven-hour span, so there's no off-night to go back to the shop and regroup.

Most stay away from predictions, but where's the sport in that? If these guys are going to stick their necks out this weekend, then I'm going to as well.

My podium prediction for Sunday's main event: 1. Nick Sweet, 2. Austin Theriault, 3. Jeff Taylor.

Sweet has been very, VERY good at Oxford in ACT Late Model Tour competition over the last few years – and were it not for Kyle Busch's invasion into the 2011 event, Sweet would have won last year's TD Bank 250 in a landslide.

Theriault is ready for his breakout performance in a marquee event, and the 250 laps of tire management and patience plays right into the 18-year-old Fort Kent driver's hands.

Taylor has more championships than anybody at Oxford, and he's won them in both Super Late Models and Late Models. Nobody short of Mike Rowe knows how to get around the flat, circle at Oxford better.

Feel free to leave your own podium prediction in the comments below.

THE NASCAR WHELEN Modified Tour championship is now Doug Coby's to lose after finishing third at New Hampshire last weekend.

GLOBAL RALLYCROSS' DEBUT at New Hampshire last weekend was a success.

As predicted, the racing was entertaining, wildly unpredictable and entirely unique (and foreign) to the stock-car racing fan base at most NASCAR events.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see just how many fans stuck around both Friday and Saturday nights to watch Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and other X-Games stars compete.

But this much is true, too: It's not a great event on television. Much like NHRA drag racing, you really have to be at the track to appreciate what these guys are doing on every lap – from 70-foot jumps, to chicanes, to dirt turns and slashing through water. There's a lot of down time for track maintenance and car repairs, not unlike drag racing, and that can seem like an eternity on TV.

Having said that, watching 10 cars burst off the standing start in the final, or seeing one car take the 70-foot jump while another crosses underneath it, or watching one car try and make up ground after going through the “Long Cut” corner (a course extension each car must take at least once during each race) is breathtaking.

When they come back next year, make sure you're there. You'll be talking about it for a while.

YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the fried clam platter and don't forget to tip your waitress. The Boneheads are here, so stick around.

– TB

2 comments:

  1. This writer clearly knows which side of his bread has the butter. Makes it go down with the kool-aid he is drinking.

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    1. Said the person who signed in as "anonymous"...

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