Overall, Stefanik characterizes this year as a strange one in comparison to his other championship seasons.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever really led the points like we did (this year),” said Stefanik. “We led them in all but one race. We changed a lot on the car throughout the season. Normally when you chase points you come to the racetrack with pretty much the same car all the time. This team worked incredibly hard and took risks at times with different setups because we were never really happy. We just could not seem to get a handle on the car this year. We were much more competitive in years past, so I was kind of surprised that we did win the championship.”
STEFANIK “OFFICIALLY” WINS MODIFIED TOUR TITLE by April Barker
Nine-Time NASCAR Champion Gets Trophy After Anti-Climactic End To Season
Mike Stefanik was still behind the wheel of the #16 Flamingo Motorsports Machine at Stafford Motor Speedway on Sunday. That means - you guessed it - he “officially” won the Whelen Modified Tour Championship.
Even after the trophy presentation, the media frenzy, the photo ops, the hugs and the congratulatory wishes, Stefanik seemed a bit disappointed with how his season finished out.
“It just seems like a very quiet kind of championship,” said Stefanik. “Normally you’re all freaked out and this and that, but I guess just because of the way it all came down, all of the controversy with Teddy and (John) Blewett and all that mess – it kind of took away from it. It would have been nicer to come here with Teddy having a shot at it and us having a nail biter and to be elated that we won it. But instead it just kind of got handed to us more or less by stupidity, for lack of a better term.”
Stefanik was referring to an accident between Christopher and Blewett at Thompson while the two raced for the lead. The accident effectively took TC out of the championship hunt.
“Teddy had a fast racecar, but for some reason he just couldn’t put it where it needed to be. I’m not out to badmouth him; it’s just the way the whole thing just flowed out. For some reason it’s hard to be all excited when we actually won this (championship) two weeks ago, but they wouldn’t give it to us. We’re like, ‘why don’t you just crown us now so we can enjoy it?’ And they were like ‘no you have to go to Stafford because Eric (Sanderson) could put somebody else in the car.’ It took a lot of the spark out of it.”
Stefanik (#16) had the championship locked up before even racing at Stafford.
Mike Stefanik earned his seventh Whelen Modified Tour Championship in boring fashion at Stafford. (Howie Hodge photo)
Stefanik also learned an important lesson when he won his first Modified Championship back in 1989. He learned to never give up.
As he reflected on his ninth championship (seven of which have come in Mods, along with two in the Busch North Series), Stefanik recalled a time during his early racing career when no one would have predicted that he would one day be compared to the legendary Evans. Like many young drivers, he had to mature as a racer before he would be able to win races or earn championships.
Even the fact that the Mod championship ties him for the most NASCAR championships with late Modified legend Richie Evans doesn’t seem to get Stefanik fired up.
“I think if Richie’s time didn’t come so soon, he probably would have won some more, because he certainly was still at the top of his game (when he died),” Stafanik added. “I don’t compare myself to Richie Evans. I don’t want people to do that. I just want to have my own program. I’m not trying to out-do Richie, or trying to put myself on the same plane as Richie. I will always look up to Richie. If I won 20 championships, he would still be the man.”
“Back around 1980, there was no car owner that could have afforded me,” said Stefanik. “I would just floor it and steer and hope to make it. I learned sitting in the infield watching cars that weren’t faster than me go on to lead or win the race and have a great night. I realized that I needed to change my ways. If you’ve got a fifth-place car, try to bring it home in fifth. Don’t try to bring it home in first and have to put it on the hook. That’s a very costly way to go racing.”
Stefanik also credits words of wisdom from his late brother Bob, a three-time Riverside Park champion, with helping him stay in a championship winning mindset. Mike was only 12 years old when Bobby won his first Riverside Championship in 1970.
“When (Bobby) won his first championship at Riverside Park in the Modifieds, I asked him ‘why are you so excited about this?’ and he said, ‘anybody can win a race, but not everybody can be a champion.’ And that’s always been in my mind. He said ‘it’s hard to put it all together for the whole season. You got to have the team, the pit stops, the motor program. Everything has to be in place. You have to have some luck. They don’t just hand these rings out. You have to earn them’ and I feel we earned it.”
“We went to Thompson at the Icebreaker and ended up flipping,” explained Stefanik. “We had to put the roof back on the car, and we had to get the car back running again and get the wheels straight. We went back out and picked up 12 points by finishing that race. We ended up winning the championship by six points over Reggie Ruggiero. Going into that last race, I only had a one point lead and I was so thankful that we actually put that car back together (at the Icebreaker), because instead of having a one point lead, we would have been 11 behind. You’ve got to chase points from the time you start until the time it’s mathematically impossible for you to win it. That’s just never changed with me, from that point on.”
Stefanik has been the master of consistency and comebacks on the Modified Tour for years...as he did after this 1989 flip at Thompson Speedway's "Icebreaker". (Howie Hodge Photo)
A year ago, Stefanik didn’t even expect to be running the full Modified Tour schedule in 2006. He was planning on running in the Busch East series full-time until his team, Grizco Racing, was closed down last winter.
“I think that (my Modified team) was the happiest out of anybody when my Busch East Series ride went away. My owner, Eric Sanderson, said, ‘well, you can come over here with us and race every week. There’s three things I’d like to do: win races, have fun and win a championship.’ So you can cross everything off the list.
“I would have loved to win more races. We would have loved to be in Victory Lane more. But we finished every lap of every race this year. It’s pretty tough to beat the team that’s doing that.”
Stefanik was tough to beat in 2006, just as he has been in so many years past. The lessons he has learned throughout his racing career have made him the championship caliber driver that he is today and will likely continue to be. Mike Stefanik will forever be known as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, right up there with Richie Evans, whether he likes it or not.