BNS: Lee USA: Mike Stefanik - NASCAR spotlight

Stefanik seeks to follow Santerre's footsteps in NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series return at Lee USA Speedway. Sun., April 27. LEE, N.H. (April 19, 2003) -- One year ago, a former star driver returned to the NASCAR Grand...

Stefanik seeks to follow Santerre's footsteps in NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series return at Lee USA Speedway. Sun., April 27.

LEE, N.H. (April 19, 2003) -- One year ago, a former star driver returned to the NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series in the traditional season opener at Lee USA Speedway. As the sun set that afternoon Andy Santerre made his homecoming complete by driving to victory lane. Six months later, Santerre was the 2002 Busch North Series champion.

It will be, as Yogi Berra once said, deja vu all over again on Sunday, April 27, as the Busch North Series curtain raiser is held at Lee USA's 3/8-mile paved oval for the eighth consecutive year. Another of the series all-time greats is returning home to begin his quest to regain the title he won consecutively in 1997 and 1998. This prodigal son, Mike Stefanik, can only hope his return plays out well as Santerre's in 2002.

The Lee 150 is scheduled as a one-day event on April 27, with practice beginning at 12 noon. Bud Pole Qualifying is set for 2:45 p.m. and the green flag to begin the 17th season of Busch North Series racing will drop at approximately 4:15 p.m. A full program for Lee USA Speedway's regular NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series classes is also on the agenda.

While the parallel between Santerre's Busch North return in 2002 and Stefanik's in 2003 is unmistakable, there are important differences. Santerre was a one-man band, driving his own truck to New England from his North Carolina shop every week. Stefanik has the advantage of sliding behind the wheel of one of the series' premier rides, the Burnham Boilers Chevrolet fielded by Grizco Racing, Busch North champions with driver Brad Leighton in 1999 and 2000. "I'm walking into a real 'A' deal," Stefanik declared, comparing the stature of the Steve and Peg Griswold-owned team within the Busch North Series to a Roush Racing or Dale Earnhardt Inc. team on one of NASCAR's national series. "It has the proper funding, the talent, the shop, and the equipment; everything is there," he continued, adding "There's real peace of mind in that."

Continuity has been a Grizco Racing trademark. In fact, until Brad Leighton decided to cut back his racing schedule, the team had not had a major personnel change in a decade. Crew chiefs Brian Latuch and Karl Osha remain at the helm, with all but one race day crew member returning from 2002. "Everybody's in place from ownership and sponsors to the volunteers. The only thing that was missing was me," Mike Stefanik quipped. He might have added that the team automatically added another noted specialist for 2003, since his wife, Julie, is regarded one of the best spotters in NASCAR racing.

It won't be Stefanik's first experience with a Burnham Boilers sponsored car. His 1997 and 1998 Busch North championship cars carried the Burnham colors, as did his Featherlite Modified Series title winners those same two years. Grizco Racing was a new team in the Busch North garage at that time, but was already making its mark. "We used to park next to each other in '98 because we were champions and they were running second in points. I got to know the guys real well. I admired their professionalism and we always got along well," Mike recalled. That acquaintance was renewed last May when Stefanik was asked to practice the Grizco entry at Nazareth Speedway while Leighton was watching his son's baseball team at a tournament in New York.

"When I got a chance to drive their car last year at Nazareth I found we worked well on the radio and the communication was there for making changes in the car," Mike noted, admitting there might have been ulterior motives on both sides. "Brad had started dropping hints that he was going to retire. I think they wanted to find out how we worked together. They were looking at several different drivers and I was one of them," he said.

Stefanik marvels at Andy Santerre's achievement in his return one year ago, "He had to do the majority of the work himself, and I've been down that road years ago. It was no picnic, he certainly paid his dues." For 2003, Santerre has stepped up his game by joining forces with former Busch North driver and NASCAR Winston Cup Series car owner Joe Bessey to field a formidable team.

"You've got to go with the champion until you beat the champion. Andy isn't the best qualifier, but he always seems to have the best car at race time. He has the poise of a champion." Stefanik noted. Sizing up the rest of the challengers, he named a mix of contenders new and old. "Mike Johnson is strong. When I was in Busch North before, Matt Kobyluck was just starting to figure it out. He's obviously got it figured out now and he'll be a threat for the championship. Dale Quarterley impresses me, too. He raced real smart at Stafford late last year. Of course you've got Kelly Moore. I hate to pick one guy, but if I had to, it would be Andy Santerre."

While he will face Santerre and Johnson, Kobyluck and Quarterley, Moore and a couple of dozen others each week, Mike Stefanik will also spend the 2003 Busch North Series season chasing two records. With two Busch North titles on his resume, he is the only driver running a full schedule who can tie Jamie Aube's record of three championships in the series. As prestigious as that would be, it pales in significance to the achievement that would accompany it. With six Featherlite Modified Series, NASCAR Touring crowns including the 2002 title, Stefanik has won a total of eight NASCAR championships, just one short of the mark held by the legendary modified champion Richie Evans.

Reflecting on the threshold he has reached, Mike Stefanik declared, "It's an honor. He was my hero when I was starting out. But I'm not trying to be Richie Evans or match his mark. I'm just trying to make my own mark." That he has already done, and will certainly continue to do as he returns to the Busch North Series for the 2003 season.


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Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Quarterley , Matt Kobyluck , Mike Johnson