Brad Babb shook his head and stared at the ground, as if somehow the greasy asphalt below his feet held some answers, some sort of insight into the improbability of it all.
Last year's ACT Late Model Tour Rookie of the Year, Babb had just one prior Top-5 finish on the Tour. The second-generation driver out of Windham, Maine, had never before finished on the podium, never so much as contemplated competing for a victory before Sunday's season opener.
And so he stood there in the helter-skelter of a post-race pit area at Lee USA Speedway as pit carts and race haulers rolled past him from either direction. A strange sort of half-smile decorated Babb's face, his eyes fixed on the ground below – save for the brief moments when he raised them skyward in the off-chance he might find answers there, too.
Nearly half an hour had passed since the checkered flag fell on Brian Hoar's win in the NH Governor's Cup 150, yet Babb still had no answer.
"I don't know where this came from," Babb finally offered, almost apologetically.
Babb finished second on Sunday to Hoar, but his best career ACT finish was only a small part of the story. He struggled in his first-round qualifying heat, and then he struggled some more in his consolation race in the family-owned No. 4 McGoldrick Brothers Blasting Chevrolet. The B-feature didn't hold anything better for Babb, who actually pulled off the track and headed for his hauler before the race was even half over.
Yet, Babb was blessed with the provisional starting spot in the Governor's Cup – the very same provisional that started him dead last in the 30-car field.
"It was just, like, 'I can't possibly go backwards' so take what I could get and not overdrive the car. I really got into a great rhythm," said Babb, whose best career finish prior to Sunday was when he finished fifth in the season finale at Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl last October. "I picked up a real good line. I tried not to do anything stupid, basically."
Babb made little noise as he cracked the Top-20, though some had started to notice him before the race was 50 laps old. By that time, he'd moved well inside the Top-15 – but a rash of wrecks and caution flags stole the early headlines.
His run to the Top-10 around the halfway mark was impressive – as he and John Donahue were seemingly the only cars on the track still surging forward – but Babb's calling card came on a Lap 116 restart. He was sitting in fifth, directly behind the drivers who had been the main players all race long.
Drivers with names like Dragon, Helliwell and Hoar – all of them multi-time winners either on the Tour or at Lee USA Speedway itself.
And then there was the Little Engine That Could: Brad Babb.
"I could see Brian (Hoar) ahead of me for a long time, like a straightaway ahead," the 18-year-old Babb. "I'd see him catch up to a couple of lapped cars and I wouldn't gain on him, so it was like, 'I guess we're not quite that good.' Then I'd go around a couple of lapped cars, and he'd be the same distance ahead. I was like, 'Maybe we ARE that good, if I could get to him."
"On that last restart, I thought if I could get a Top-3, I was going to be ecstatic."
Over the final few circuits the chilly few in the grandstands were rising to their feet, cheering on Babb as he went after the winningest driver in Tour history. Babb never got all that close to making a pass attempt for the lead – but he did do the one thing he really wanted to do over the final 35 laps.
"I feel like if I had five or 10 more laps, I might have beat him," Babb said. "But I might have made a mistake or something, too. I don't know.
"But I was there – and I think they know I was there."
And while everyone else stood around Babb in the cool early-spring air after the race, they marveled first at his T-shirt – "Richie Evans" in tribute to one of the greatest Modified drivers in history, if not the greatest – and then marveled at how he'd managed to steal the show on Sunday.
And then they waited for answers on just how he he passed 28 cars and came so close to what surely would have been one of ACT's greatest upsets.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't. I don't think that (strategy is) going to work at every race, because hopefully we're not going to be starting last every week.
"But I think that was definitely the best race I ever drove in my life. Yeah, I made mistakes, but you do every race. I feel like I made less today than I ever have."