STAFFORD, Conn. – Rowan Pennink knew what you were thinking.
He knew that after a promising 2009 campaign on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, eyes were on him last season. He knew that his on-track performance wasn't as good as it should have been. He knew that things had to change.
After finishing fourth in the standings in 2009, he faded to a distant 11th in 2010. So, Pennink changed.
Following an offseason of turnover, Pennink has stormed out of the gates in 2011. His runner-up finish in the TSI Harley-Davidson 125 at Stafford Motor Speedway on Friday night was his third consecutive second-place finish to open the season. Not only is the Huntingdon Valley, Pa., driver the Modified Tour points leader, but he's enjoying a 51-point cushion already.
"All you guys (in the media) have been saying we had a strong run in 2009 for the point standings, and then last year we were a little bit off our game," said Pennink, whose lone victory in four-plus seasons on Tour came last August at Riverhead Raceway.
"I think people got the faith back in us this year. Hopefully, it will carry on for the rest of the season.
"I got a new crew chief in Doug Chouinard, and we basically revamped the whole team. There are only a couple guys on the team that are the same, and we even changed the way we went about building a new car for this season. That was the third race for that car, and we haven't finished worse than second yet. That just shows the work we put into the car over the winter."
Something else has changed, too. It seems that Pennink's confidence has enjoyed an uptick.
Though Pennink had the fastest car over the final 30 laps at Stafford, lapped traffic slowed his pursuit of eventual winner Ron Silk. But his best move of the night had nothing to do with the race for the lead – instead, it came during a key battle with defending Tour champion Bobby Santos.
After traveling the half-mile circuit glued to Santos' bumper for several laps, Pennink finally gave a bump-and-run shot to Santos in Turn 3 on Lap 110 to take over second place.
It was the kind of move fictional pitcher Nuke Laloosh from the movie "Bull Durham" would have been proud of. It announced Pennink's presence with authority.
"I guess that would be a true statement, but I'd like to sure win one of them one of these days, you know," Pennink said with a laugh.
Pennink may have take the points lead after the season opener when winner Ted Christopher was penalized and docked points after failing post-race technical inspection, but Pennink has proven that his time at the top is no fluke.
And given the way his season has started, that could be bad news for the rest of the Tour.
"We had the best car tonight, just ran out of time," Pennink said. "We needed a caution there. A caution there with 25 laps to go, or inside that, would have I think won us the race."