Together, they made up a team that did something that none of the other 63 teams who entered a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race in 2006 could not do – win the championship.
“You don’t win a championship without a great team,” said team owner Sanderson of his crew. “And there is one other thing that you need as well – a great driver. We have that. I know that Mike Stefanik is the best.”
As far as modern-day Modified Tour racing goes, the stats agree completely with Sanderson’s assessment. Stefanik has far more victories and championships than anyone since the Tour began in 1985. He’s taken a few years off from Mods time to time as well – to drive in the NASCAR Busch North Series, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and the NASCAR Busch Series. But he always seems to come back. 2006 was Stefanik’s first full year on the Tour since 2002 – when he also won the title.
STEFANIK IS RIGHT AT HOME DURING MOD TOUR BANQUET by Mike Twist
Path That Started at Riverside Park Ends Up at Mohegan Sun
Not that long ago, there was a prosperous quarter-mile bullring located right smack in the middle of an amusement park along the banks of the Connecticut River in Agawam, Massachusetts. Riverside Park Speedway was the birthplace for many Modified careers.
One of those careers belongs to Mike Stefanik. While Riverside has closed its doors, swallowed up by the amusement park around it, Stefanik’s career in short track racing couldn’t be more prosperous – he won a record-tying ninth NASCAR Touring championship this year on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
So it was appropriate that when Stefanik was honored as the champion during Saturday’s NASCAR Banquet at Mohegan Sun Resort in Connecticut, he was joined by a cast of characters with the same racing roots. The championship-winning driver, car owner (Eric Sanderson), crew chief (Stan “Sly” Szaban) and team manager (Chris Kopec) all started out at “The Park”.
Mike Stefanik speaks to the crowd with his wife and spotter Julie standing in the background. (Jim DuPont Photo)
The Whelen Modified Tour banquet brought over 600 guests to the Mohegan Sun Resort on Saturday night. (Howie Hodge Photo)
Stefanik was 20 years old in 1978 when Evans, already a Modified star throughout the Northeast corridor, started to make regular appearances at Riverside Park. Stefanik watched in awe as Evans collected 34 victories at the track over the next six seasons. A few years later, they joined forces for one race.
“When I was 22 years old, all that I wanted to do was to be Richie Evans,” said Stefanik to the banquet crowd. “I just wanted to build and drive racecars like him. He asked me to drive for him at Thompson and when he called me, I was cool about it, said yes and asked him when I should be there. I hung up the phone and went crazy. The biggest and best memory of my career was driving for him in that race.”
“Being back in a Modified is definitely the most comfortable place that I know to be,” said Stefanik. “This is home to me.”
While home might be in the driver’s seat, the center table at the Modified Tour banquet has been a common vacation spot for Stefanik through the years. His ninth title ties him with the late Modified legend Richie Evans for the most in NASCAR Touring history. It also puts him two ahead of Cup giants Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Yet none of those titles, nor any of Stefanik’s nearly 80 NASCAR victories, rank number one on his list of career highlights. That actually came thanks to Evans himself.
Stefanik's championship-winning Flamingo Motorsports team. (Rick Ibsen Photo)
Tying his hero has brought some good memories too.
“In New York [for NASCAR’s Champions Week], people got talking about Richie all of the time and how great he was. To have that happen is the best thing about winning this championship.”
Stefanik has now won championships for a record four different Tour teams. The 2006 championship was the first for the #16 team.
“This team deserves this championship,” said Stefanik.
“They don’t go out and complain to the next team. They don’t go out and start trouble. They just do their jobs. I think that there are a lot of people in the pit area who are happy to see them win – probably a lot more than seeing me win another one.
While Stefanik led the way, the other veterans of the Tour also had a good evening. Tony Hirschman won the 51 Designs Most Popular Driver Award, Jamie Tomaino received the NASCAR Dedication Award for a string 450 consecutive Tour starts, Eddie Flemke and Ted Christopher were second and third in points and got to make post-season podium appearances. Even the Most Improved Driver of the Year, Dick Houlihan, is a short track veteran in New England.
Rookie of the Year James Civali even quipped about the large amount of gray hair among the top points finishers. To which Stefanik offered a comeback.
“This is the Senior Tour, you’re doing pretty good among us,” joked Stefanik.
Stefanik’s chance to go after a record 10th NASCAR title
The night's big winners - Tony Hirschman (L) shows off his 51 Designs Most Popular Driver and Bud Pole Awards, Mike Stefanik (C) holds up his championship hardware and James Civali (R) holds the Rookie of the Year trophy. (Mary Hodge Photo)
will start on April 15th as The Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway kicks off the 2007 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season.
2006 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Post-Season Award Winners
Championship Driver – Mike Stefanik
Championship Car Owner – Eric Sanderson
Championship Co-Crew Chiefs – Stan “Sly” Szaban and Chris Kopec
Sportsmanship Award – Eric Sanderson
51 Designs Most Popular Driver – Tony Hirschman
NASCAR Dedication Award - Jamie and Cheryl Tomaino
Sunoco Rookie of the Year – James Civali
Featherlite Most Improved Driver Award – James Civali
PowerAde Power Move of the Race Award – Ted Christopher