The more things change, the more they've stayed the same for Ryan Preece.
It was one year ago to the weekend that Preece first jousted with Mike Stefanik on the track and then took to some verbal sparring with the winningest driver in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour history. And it was one year ago that Preece got off to a promising start to the season.
And it was also one year ago that it seemed like Preece was on the verge of really cementing his place on the Tour.
Nothing seemed all that different for the Berlin, Conn., driver on Sunday in the Icebreaker 150 at Thompson International Speedway. Preece finished fourth after leading several laps in the second half of the race.
"I'm really looking forward to this entire season," Preece said. "I think we'll have a shot at the championship, and I think we'll have a shot to win quite a few races here this year."
What is different for 2011 is that Preece is no longer behind the wheel of the famed No. 3 Ol' Blue – having left that team to get back into his family-owned No. 11 ride. That made the solid start to the season at Thompson that much more significant.
"It shows everybody we aren't going to just come and struggle," said Preece, who finished sixth in the final standings last season. "We're going to have our days when we struggle, sure, but we're also we're going to have our days when we run really well. I'm just happy to be on the Tour again after leaving the (No. 3 car)."
Preece, like other leaders, fell victim when circumstances aligned perfectly for Ted Christopher to parlay early-race misfortune into late-raceadvantage en route to his 12th career Thompson victory. But in looking at the big picture, Preece was far from disappointed.
"It was a great day," Preece said. "For a first-race team, it was a real good day. We definitely have something for everybody the next time we come back, and for Stafford (in three weeks) we'll be really good there because we've been there with this car."
Preece has three career Tour victories and finished a career-best second in the standings in 2009.
As for that battle with Stefanik on Sunday?
"We had a good battle, I guess," Preece said. "I wish I could have made it a lot tougher on him."
HARD LUCK AWARD: Tough call when giving out hard-luck hardware after as wild a race as the Icebreaker 150 proved to be, but Ron Silk certainly had to be in the running.
Silk led 40 of the 150 laps, and he was moving back toward the front of the field after all the leaders made pit stops midway through the event. He was penalized for rough driving after contact with Stefanik, yet still had charged nearly into the Top-10 when disaster struck.
A multi-car, chain-reaction wreck on the frontstretch on Lap 102 brought out a red flag – but not before Silk's car was sent airborne and received the worst of the damage.
"I don't really know what caused it," Silk said. "There were a couple of cars in front of me, and we got all jammed up. I got us behind the eight-ball a little bit getting black-flagged with (Stefanik). I was just going for everything I had, and all of a sudden they were stopped in front of me. I had nowhere to go and just kind of piled into it.
"We got pretty airborne there, but I don't know what caused it to happen."
Silk was naturally disappointed to have let an opportunity pass.
"It's too early in the year to be worried about (points)," Silk said of his 23rd-place finish. "I'm just disappointed because I thought we had a good shot at winning the race. I'm disappointed that we're not out there to fight for it."
BIG BLOW: The day of reigning Tour champion Bobby Santos came to an abrupt end on Lap 16 Sunday when his engine went up in smoke. Crew chief Bob Mueller wasn't sure exactly what had happened, but he thought the problem was rooted in a piston.
"We might have a cracked piston," Mueller said.
Santos set a track record in qualifying and swapped the lead with Christopher on a couple of occasions over the very first laps of the race before things headed south quickly.
"We were smoking the right side tire," Mueller said. "Right after (Christopher) passed him (for the lead on Lap 11), it started laying down. We had a real good race car, but just nothing to show for it."
Santos finished dead last in the 33-car field one year after winning this event in his debut with the No. 4 Mystic Missile Dodge team.