It's Thursday again. Time to dust off the ol' Mini Stock for a test drive around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...
THE SEASON MIGHT only be at the official midway point, but the drivers leading the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour standings gave notice last weekend at Stafford Motor Speedway that the championship chase will be a spirited one.
Once Ted Christopher checked out on the field following a late restart, there was little drama unfolding at the front of the Town Fair Tire 150. A little further back, however, was a different story – with Ron Silk and Rowan Pennink racing for every square inch of real estate on the track.
Pennink held on for sixth, with Silk in seventh – and one point ahead of Pennink now for the series lead.
"Oh yeah, he was hammering on me really good. He almost got me spun a couple of times," Pennink said. "Luckily, I saved it and got sixth."
"I don't know what they did on the pit stop, but we were definitely a lot better than they were," Silk said. "Coming off Turn 2, he hit the wall really hard and it messed him up. I got to him and he didn't give me much room – if I wanted to turn him I could have turned him.
"I was just trying to get a nose under him, because I figured if I would have been able to do that, we would have gotten him."
Pennink didn't think things necessarily crossed the line into the category of "over-aggressive."
"I don't know. I don't ever like to get anyone that crossed up," Pennink said with a laugh. "He almost wrecked himself, let alone wrecked me. It all came out alright. It would have been nice if he went spinning trying to get me... That would have been better."
Silk, for his part, completely understood the efforts of his counterpart over the final 10 laps.
"He's doing what he's got to do, too," Silk said. "You've got to fight for every position."
The notion of "points racing" often carries a negative connotation. In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, a driver's reluctance to force the issue on the track in an effort to salvage every last available point, has led to rules changes and great debate.
The kind of "points racing" put on by Silk and Pennink on the Whelen Modified Tour, however, was a completely different breed. It was just the brand of intense racing that short-track fans eat up in heaping helpings.
"To be honest, I wasn't even thinking that," Silk said. "It's halfway home. It's nice to be in contention, but there's a lot of races left."
This weekend, the Tour heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the 95-lap Granite State Classic on the undercard of the IZOD IndyCar Series' return to the track. Silk finished third on the track behind Ryan Newman and Todd Szegedy, while Pennink was credited with fifth following Newman's post-race disqualification.
Saturday's race is one of two races at the 1.058-mile oval over the final eight events of the season – and it's likely that both title contenders will need strong efforts to keep their championship hopes alive.
"We had a really good car there last time. We'll go back pretty similar (setup-wise)," Silk said. "The only unknown is what the IndyCar rubber is going to do and how our cars will handle with that. But we're pretty confident going back."
Pennink said his team will try and improve on a new speedway package this time around.
"We had a decent car at Loudon the first race. We have to figure a couple things out and go back there and be better," Pennink said. "(The July race) was the first time with this kind of a setup that we're running there, so the second time back we should be able to make some gains on it."
MIKE STEFANIK WILL pull double-duty this weekend at New Hampshire, an added treat for race rans in the northeast.
In addition to Stefanik's regular ride on the Whelen Modified Tour, the seven-time Tour champion will make his ACT Late Model Tour debut in an RPM Motorsports car. While it's unclear exactly what we should expect from Stefanik – who last competed in a race car with 8-inch tires in a Late Model at Stafford Motor Speedway in the late 1970s – his participation is a huge bonus for ACT.
Like Eddie MacDonald and Brad Leighton, both of whom have won at New Hampshire in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East rides, Stefanik is another measuring stick. He's someone that fans and teams can relate to.
When you add "names" to an event, it adds some type of reference point. And for a series like ACT – which has blossomed into one of the northeast's premier touring series over the last half-decade – it brings credibility.
"We're thrilled to have him race with us at New Hampshire," said ACT president Tom Curley. "Mike brings a level of success and instant credibility with him, and we can't wait to see how he performs this weekend against an All-Star crop of Late Model drivers from this region."
No doubt, the media and fans can't wait, either. The more drivers with these types of resumes that a series like ACT can draw, the better off the series on the whole is.
"The whole newness of it is what's exciting for me," Stefanik said. "I really don't know what to expect. I've been told that I've got a really good car, and it usually comes down to the car.
"As long as I'm smart with it, I should be OK. It will be on-the-job training."
Stefanik should need little of that. He's one of only two drivers in history – Richie Evans is the other – to win nine NASCAR touring championships. He joined Lee Petty in the record books, too, when he won both the Whelen Modified Tour and K&N Pro Series championships in 1997 and 1998.
WE OBVIOUSLY KNEW that the IZOD IndyCar Series would be faster than any NASCAR-sanctioned series at New Hampshire.
What we didn't know, however, was just how much faster. Like, seven seconds a lap faster...
During Thursday morning's two and a half hour test session at New Hampshire, Dario Franchitti posted the fastest lap of the day – at 21.741 seconds (169.718 mph). To put that in perspective, when Ryan Newman broke the "track record" in Sprint Cup Series qualifying here in July, he posted a lap of 28.165 seconds (135.232 mph).
Standing on pit road watching some of the IndyCar test this morning, one thing above all else stood out to me: The cars drive so deep into Turn 1 that when they disappear from view, they're still under acceleration.
It is that amazing.
POCONO RACEWAY DID what I long hoped it wouldn't do this week. It announced that it is officially reducing the traditional 500-mile distance of each of its two annual Sprint Cup Series races to 400 miles.
I know that Pocono isn't all beat-and-bang like Bristol or Martinsville. I know it's not freight train drafting like Daytona or Talladega. I know that it doesn't race anything like the D-shaped mile and a half ovals.
I know all of this, and that's what I like so much about Pocono. It's a true test of driver, car and engineering – and that's what has always made it stand out to me. I know, too, that this puts me in the minority.
But when NASCAR says it listened to "fans," I'm left to wonder if those fans are the TV fans or the fans that actually buy the tickets to sit in the sprawling stands at Pocono each summer...
YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the lobster mac 'n cheese, and don't forget to tip your waitress. The Foo Fighters are here, stick around.