BARRE, Vt. – If you think last year was Wayne Helliwell Jr.'s breakout season on the ACT Late Model Tour, try telling that to him.
To hear Helliwell tell it, last year's second-place finish in the final ACT points standings was just dumb luck.
“Last year finishing second in points, I believe it was a fluke,” said a straight-faced Helliwell, of Dover, N.H. “Some other guys had some problems and we kind of lucked into that. But if we can come out of this season with a Top-5, I'll be really proud of that.”
A fluke? Really? After back-to-back second-place finishes to open the 2012 season, Helliwell's going to have a tough time selling that to the rest of the competition. He had the dominant car in the season opener at Lee USA Speedway two weeks ago, and in Sunday's Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road, he led on three different occasions before finishing second to eight-time series champion Brian Hoar.
Through two races, he's just six points behind Hoar for the ACT championship lead.
If anything, Helliwell's early-season results in the No. 27 Unique Ford Ford Fusion are backing up his impressive championship bid from a year ago. A four-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track champion at Lee USA in the Late Model division, there's hardly any doubt from observers that Helliwell can contend every year on the ACT Tour.
And maybe, just maybe, after Sunday's runner-up at Thunder Road, Helliwell himself is starting to believe that, too.
“We've done really well at Lee over the last few years, but you get stagnant,” Helliwell said. “To get out on the Tour and get beat week in and week out, you kind of pick things up. It makes you change and search. You learn to make the right calls (on the car's setup) first before you chase a million other things.
“As a whole, it's made the whole team better.”
The Merchants Bank 150 was the kind of self-affirming proof Helliwell and car owner and crew chief Bruce Bernhardt were looking for.
“I would expect us to run like we did at Lee, but to come (to Thunder Road) and run like we did (Sunday)? Nah, I never would have even thought it if someone would have told me that at the beginning of the day. We haven't been good here in the past, and this weekend we made huge gains.
“I've learned, after being here two or three times, not to chase all the time and make wholesale changes. I've learned that you've got to give up something to get something here. We tried to put that to use (Sunday), and it seemed to pay off.”
A little stroke of luck also helped Helliwell. A multi-car incident on Lap 70 gave Helliwell the chance to head to pit road for fresh right side tires and adjustments. It came just in the nick of time, too, as the team discovered upon first surveying the situation during the caution period.
The left rear wheel had come loose on the No. 27 – styled after the popular orange No. 29 of Dave Dion and Dion Bros. Racing, where Bernhardt got his start as a crew member – a problem that threatened to end Helliwell's day early. Instead, they fixed the issue and bolted on fresh rubber for a march to the checkered flag.
On more than one occasion, too, Helliwell pulled up to the bumper of Hoar over the closing laps and initiated slight contact. He just couldn't bully Hoar into the mistake he needed to pull off a pass for the win.
“A second is just like a win here for us,” Helliwell said during the Victory Lane ceremonies.
It's no wonder Helliwell felt as good as he did. Heading into 2012, he looked at Thunder Road and Oxford Plains Speedway as litmus tests for his season. He passed the first with flying colors.
“Last year, a lot of the tracks we went to, we hadn't been there in Late Models yet,” Helliwell said. “It was a little bit of a learning curve. I tried to keep great notes, and I learned a lot of different things.
“My two big concerns were (Thunder Road) and Oxford. Oxford, we have a horrible time trying to qualify into the races. Last year, we took a provisional to get into both races, but we finished seventh in both. Once we get in and we get running, we're pretty decent. But that's our next goal is to work on that track.”
One of Helliwell's redeeming qualities is a distinct lack of arrogance. And even as he's burst out of the starting gate this season, he's not exactly boasting about his championship chances.
He knows he's up against a stout field of Late Models each and every week on the ACT Tour.
“We've stepped up our program, but there's a lot of other teams that have done the same thing as well,” Helliwell said. “Joey (Polewarzyk), he's going to be good everywhere he goes. He's been running the Tour long enough now. There's a whole bunch of guys like that.
“Like I said, if we can come out of it with a Top-5 (in the standings), we'll be really happy.”
With two of 10 ACT points races in the books, he's well on his way to that. And this time around, it's certainly no fluke.