Five Things To Watch: Can Christopher Repeat His Title Run? With five days remaining until the green flag drops at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway to start the Silver Anniversary season of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, here are five...
Five Things To Watch: Can Christopher Repeat His Title Run?
With five days remaining until the green flag drops at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway to start the Silver Anniversary season of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, here are five things to watch as the 2009 title chase progresses:
Is Christopher Still Peeking?
When a person turns 50 years old they are playfully referred to as over-the-hill, and a race car driver who reaches that age is often considered past his prime. Neither generalization would be accurate of longtime New England racer and defending NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Champion Ted Christopher. Christopher has cultivated and polished a reputation of racing anything, anytime, anywhere for nearly two decades, and he is arguably just as good at that at age 50 as at any other time in his career. In his 15th full season in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2008, Christopher reached Victory Lane in a quarter of the 16 races and finished outside the top 10 just three times, numbers he carbon-copied while also competing in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modified events at local Connecticut tracks Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson International Speedway. Since the calendar turned over to 2009 this offseason, Christopher captured the Tour-Type Modified points title at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway's World Series and he won both of the Northeast's biggest winter racing events; indoor TQ Midget races in Atlantic City, N.J., and Providence, R.I. Even though he has the elusive NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship trophy now on his mantle, Christopher is not one to slow down. In addition to his desire to defend that title in 2009, Christopher wants to make a run at his second NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship and will no doubt turn up at other New England short tracks throughout the season. Another thing you can count on: Christopher will be a contender.
Is There a First-Time Championship Contender?
The last two NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champions -- Christopher and Donny Lia -- were first-timers, and in this decade four of the six drivers to earn titles etched their name on the championship trophy for the first time. Could the trend continue in 2009? Matt Hirschman, who was third in 2007 and runner-up to Christopher a year ago, would be a favorite, but it appears that he will only be a part-time competitor in 2009. Ron Silk and Jimmy Blewett, still early in their careers, have exhibited plenty of talent. Silk has three wins, 20 top 10s and points finishes of fourth and fifth in the last two years while Blewett, who has the potential to win nearly every time out, could become a championship contender with a larger body of consistent finishes. Veterans Eric Beers and Ed Flemke Jr. could surprise in 2009. Beers has finished in the top 10 in points four years in a row and Flemke put together title runs in 2004 and 2006 that ended up just shy of the series crown. Could Ryan Preece or Erick Rudolph be darkhorse contenders to make a move similar to Toddy Szegedy in 2003 when he won the championship in just his second full year? Preece made huge strides from his rookie to sophomore seasons, and he figures run up front consistently in his third season in the series behind the wheel of the venerable No. 3 'Ole Blue' Modified. Rudolph finished in the top 10 in five of his nine starts as a rookie and already has championship experience as he won points titles in two-different divisions at Dunn Tire Raceway Park in 2008.
Who is Poised to Make the Biggest Leap in 2009?
In 2008 two NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour sophomores made significant strides in the standings from their rookie campaigns. Rowan Pennink improved from 17th in the 2007 standings to a seventh-place finish a year ago and was a consistent race-finisher. Preece, who finished 19th as a rookie in 2007, improved nine spots in the standings in 2008 and in the process reached Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway and won two Coors Light Pole Awards. Time will tell whether there are any drivers out there that can take sizeable strides from last year to this. Glen Reen finished 18th in the standings during his 2008 Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign and, with new crew chief Jimmy Fuller calling the shots, could make significant strides as a sophomore. Tom Abele Jr. finished 21st as a rookie a year ago and has plenty of room for improvement with a year under his belt. Could series iron man Jamie Tomaino have another top-10 championship finish in him? He finished 16th a year ago. Bobby Grigas III, who finished 17th in 2008, has showed flashes of talent and could make a significant leap in the coming year with more seat time and the guidance of new crew chief Kevin Crowley.
Lia's Return to the 'Mystic Missile'
For the second year in a row car owner Bob Garbarino will be reunited with a former driver and take championship aspirations into the coming campaign. Lia earned his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour title in 2007 at the wheel of Garbarino's No. 4 'Mystic Missile' Dodge, also the first for the longtime owner. Lia parlayed his Modified success into a full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride for 2008 and Garbarino brought back former driver Chuck Hossfeld after a three-year hiatus. Hossfeld registered a pair of wins and a host of top finishes to finish fourth in the points standings last year, but when Lia became available in the offseason, Garbarino welcomed the Long Island standout back to the team to contend for another crown. The pairing netted three poles, six wins and 13 top 10s en route to the 2007 championship and much will be expected of the reunification for 2009.
Inaugural Visit to Bristol
There has been a constant buzz from competitors and fans alike since iconic Bristol Motor Speedway was added to the 2009 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour schedule. The thought of the ground-pounders circling the high concrete banks of "The World's Fastest Half Mile" has had many salivating for years, and the February tire test served to further heighten the excitement as nearly every car that participated recorded speeds faster than the official track record. With the University of Northwestern Ohio on board as the title sponsor for the NASCAR Whelen Modified and NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour combination race, and with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to race on the same night, the UNOH Perfect Storm at Bristol and the O'Reilly 200 doubleheader on Wednesday, Aug. 19 is an event that fans should not miss.