Column By: KYLE SOUZA / NASCAR – MYRTLE BEACH, SC – A little adversity can’t hurt — even when you’re a five-time champion.
Doug Coby’s path to victory in Saturday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour opener might not have been the one he thought he would have to take, but it all worked out in the end. In a search of a sixth series championship, Coby is making headlines once again as he opened the season in Victory Lane at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Defending race winner Jon McKennedy was strong throughout the day, coming home second, while the Pasteryak name returned to the top five and the defending series champion took a gamble that didn’t pay off.
All that and more in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Rapid Rewind from Myrtle Beach.
Welcome Back, Champ
He may not have won the championship last year, but everyone knew Doug Coby wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. After an offseason filled with testing, and a few adjustments inside the Mayhew Tools team, Coby showed up to Myrtle Beach looking to erase some past misfortune at the South Carolina oval.
Well, in the end, celebrating in Victory Lane pretty much accomplished that goal. After qualifying on the pole, and winning the first Mayhew Tools Dominator Pole Award, Coby’s day was off to a dream start. What better way to open the season? Winning the pole and having control of the green to set the pace at a gritty, tire-eating track was going to be important for the Milford, Connecticut, driver.
But it was just before he buckled into the car when things took a turn down the wrong path. Coby and his No. 2 Mayhew Tools Chevrolet crew noticed something stuck into the left-front tire, and when they pulled it out, the tire was beginning to go flat. The crew made the decision to change the tire, forfeiting their pole position per the NASCAR rulebook for unapproved adjustments. Coby was frustrated with the ruling to send him to the tail of the field, since he felt like the team was boxed into a corner with no other choice but to change the tire — for something that wasn’t of his, or his crews, fault.
But, that didn’t derail his drive to win. He found a way to get to the front.
“It had a phillips head on it, with an inch long stick at the end of it, it was straight in the tire,” Coby said of what the team found before the green. “Ultimately, I like to think that I can keep my composure over any circumstance, but I voice my frustration when I think I know I am right. But I’ll never let that affect how I will race. With this kind of stuff, you just have to let it roll.”
His eventual path to the win was a difficult one. Early, while slicing through traffic in the tail of the field, Coby nearly saw his entire effort go up in smoke during a wreck, where he was nearly boxed into the outside wall.
“If I had bent my right-front suspension in the first wreck when I got up against the wall, I’d be having a different interview. I just don’t feel like I should have been put in that position to go to the rear,” Coby said. “But we had to perform, and we did. We didn’t just let pit strategy do it. We passed a lot of cars out there.”
Even though strategy did matter, Coby decided to stay out during a caution early, gaining crucial track position. When the cautions flew his way in the final laps, a quick stop by the team allowed Coby to get out towards the front of the field, where he later passed Kyle Ebersole for the lead and he never looked back.
The testing over the offseason as part of the 53rd World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway definitely helped steer the Phil Moran led team in the right direction, and Coby also made the move to a new shock builder — joining the Earnest Performance team.
On top of all of that, Steven Kopcik, the crew chief for second-place points finisher Chase Dowling last year, has been helping the team, and was in attendance on Saturday.
“You have to remember that a lot of the ideas for the LFR cars come from Phil, and when he and Rob Fuller designed the LFR car, some of the ideas came from both of their experiences. Steven, working for LFR, and Chase not running full-time, he’s been in the shop putting cars together and he has a great knowledge of what worked last year for Chase,” Coby said. “The neat thing about this whole LFR deal is that there are a lot of new customers but they are still treating us as though we should be treated as those championship customers. Steven’s help with tires, it’s nice to have. It’s a good fit for the help we are able to get from him. Hopefully he has some opportunities to help us a little bit more this year.”
But, maybe the most promising aspect of the victory for Coby was the fact that he was able knock Myrtle Beach off the list of few tracks where he has struggled. After failing to finish inside the top 10 the last two years at the .538-mile track, Coby leaves the race at the top of the standings.
“I think everyone always figured that no matter what happens at Myrtle Beach, the No. 2 is going to come out in a whole because they can’t get a handle on this track, but not tonight,” Coby said. “We made some adjustments for the beginning of the race, and we weren’t sure they were going to work but it turns out they did. It helped us build a notebook. It’s a good feeling to start the season on a high compared to the low from the last two years.”
McKennedy Comes Up Just Short of Repeat Win
Jon McKennedy definitely has a knack for tracks that have worn out surfaces. He’s been known for it his entire Modified career in New England, and Saturday, it was only display in South Carolina for the second straight year.
The Chelmsford, Massachusetts, driver started from the front row, but when Coby had to move to the tail of the field, it gave McKennedy the opportunity to be the control car for the drop of the initial green flag. And even though Tommy Catalano led the first two laps, it was all McKennedy after that during the initial stint of the race — as he found himself leading the charge, and setting the pace, something he wanted to make sure he had the opportunity to do.
“Most of my driving career, I’ve always been pretty smooth. A lot of the worn out tracks tend to fit my style, especially knowing how much you can push the car,” McKennedy said. “A lot of drivers have a hard time knowing the limit. There is only so much traction available for these tires, but I’ve been pretty fortunate during my career to know that limit, and not exceed it.”
Throughout the race, McKennedy dictated his own fate — but when it came down to the final laps, it was all about which tires went on the car and which time, which helped decide his end result. While attempting to chase down Coby for the lead in the final laps, McKennedy was racing veteran Jimmy Blewett for second. While he did that, Coby pulled away, but McKennedy was able to battle Blewett and eventually hang on for a second-place effort.
Following up a victory at Myrtle Beach in 2017 with a runner-up finish was a solid start to the season for the Tommy Baldwin Racing team. In the end, it could have been the ultimate decision to leave the right-front tire on during a late pit stop that could have been part of the result.
“We put two rear tires on and the No. 2 car (Coby) put three on, but we still had a really good car,” McKennedy said. “He could just roll the middle a little bit better, turning down to the bottom. I had to wait on the throttle, and I got a little bit tight at the end. We asked the right-front tire to go the whole 150 laps, but we still had an awesome car. We probably got beat with the right-front tire, but it was a gamble. Just one car short.”
The communication between McKennedy, and Baldwin — two veterans of Modified racing — seems to have clicked right from day one. Baldwin, a former Daytona 500 winning crew chief, has deep roots in NASCAR’s Modified ranks, and still owns a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team.
“Last year, right from the start, Tommy and I had communication that was really good. We ran about 13 races together last year in a few different series and won four of them,” McKennedy said. “This year we built a brand new car, with a few new guys on the crew, and things are working out. We are on the same page with our adjustments. It’s just a good deal. Hopefully we can run a bunch more races together and continue to grow.”
Strong Start For Pasteryak
Chris Pasteryak made the decision late last year to move to LFR Chassis, in hopes of improving his performance on the track. After an offseason filled with added confidence and anticipation, Pasteryak opened the with a strong fifth-place finish on Saturday.
The Lisbon, Connecticut, driver started seventh, and ran inside the top-10 for much of the Performance Plus 150 presented by Safety Kleen, challenging up at the front of the field at times. Much like some of the other competitors, his finishing spot was definitely impacted by the tire strategy his family-owned team decided to use — but it certainly worked out in his favor.
The top-five was the first for Pasteryak in Whelen Modified Tour competition since 2009, and his fifth career in 45 starts. In his return to full-time action last year, Pasteryak’s best finish was eighth — so he has already beat that mark in just one race.
Gamble Doesn’t Pay Off For Defending Champ
It was no secret that Justin Bonsignore had plenty of speed at Myrtle Beach. After topping the charts in the lone practice session of the day, qualifying didn’t quite go the way the Phoenix Communications team wanted, but Bonsignore wasted no time getting to the front of the field at the drop of the green.
In the final laps, Bonsignore’s crew chief Ryan Stone decided to save two fresh tires in the pits hoping for a late caution. But it never flew.
“We just got greedy. We always seem to end up in those positions where the opposite seems to happen of what we need when it’s a strategy race,” Bonsignore told SPEED SPORT. “We wanted a win, we had two tires left in the pits that we were going to come back for and just didn’t get the yellow that we needed to be able to take advantage of it.”
Bonsignore opened last year with a fifth-place effort and only finished outside the top 10 once throughout the season. If he wants to accomplish that feat again, he will have to finish no worse than 10 in the remaining 15 points championship events.
NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour teams won’t have much time to think about what transpired at Myrtle Beach. In just under two weeks, the series returns to action at South Boston Speedway in Virginia, on Saturday, March 30.