A Good Icebreaker Usually Leads to a Good Year on Mod Tour by Mike Twist and April Barker
Thompson Season Opener Sets The Tone For Races To Come
Mike Stefanik knows how important a good finish, or even a victory, in the Icebreaker can be. (Jim DuPont Photo)
Not all of the races that make up the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour are created equal.
There are 16 different events on the schedule in 2007. There are day races, night races, events on tracks where NASCAR Nextel Cup Series fans have assembled and events on bullrings that are smaller than a grocery store parking lot. Some events are steeped in tradition; some are relatively new to the schedule. All have something different to offer race fans and all are equally important when it comes to earning points for the season.
Even so, there is only one Icebreaker.
The two-day event kicks off the Tour season this weekend at Thompson International Speedway (CT) and in recent seasons, if you want to have a good year, you’d better plan on a strong Icebreaker finish. In the last five seasons, the winner of the Icebreaker has gone on to finish in the top five of the Tour standings at the end of the season.
Mike Stefanik knows that. He started out the 2006 season by winning at Thompson. He ended it by being crowned Modified Tour champion for the seventh time in his career.
"It’s frustrating to have a bad race because there are only 15 or 16 Tour points races [each year], so last year we started out with a win, not knowing that was our only one for the year,” said Stefanik. “It’s always good to start off on a high note. You can carry that momentum and you know eventually you’re going to have a bad day. You’d rather have a bad day down the road than have it right off the bat."
But it doesn’t take seven titles to realize the value of a good result in the Icebreaker.
“It’s very important,” said Donny Lia, who has won at various tracks on the schedule, but not yet at Thompson. “In years past, you could get away with a bad finish or two. But I wouldn’t be surprised this year if you couldn’t get away with a bad finish. There aren’t that many races and there is strong competition. So to come out of the box strong is a plus.”
Last season, James Civali rose above a crowded rookie class by posting a sixth-place finish. He never looked back from there, winning the Rookie of the Year award and a race at Stafford before the season was up.
Did starting off with a strong Icebreaker finish help accomplish that? You bet it did.
“It helped a lot,” said Civali. “When you first get into a new car, you just don’t know what to expect. To come out of the first race with a top 10 is good. I was really happy and [car owner] Don [King] was really happy. We based on whole year on that and just went on to go after top tens.”
On the other hand, a bad race in the Icebreaker might take some time to overcome.
“Last year, we didn’t get off to a good start and that hurt us,” said sophomore Tour driver Matt Hirschman. “The whole season, it felt like we were battling from behind. We never could quite get caught up. Towards the end of the year, we started to get to where we wanted to be.
James Civali (#28) pulled out a surprise sixth-place finish in last year's Icebreaker. By the end of the season, the Rookie of the Year winner wasn't surprising anyone with his strong finishes. (Jim DuPont Photo)
We almost got into the top 10 in points. Going into the last race, we had a shot to go as far as eighth or ninth and we ended up 11th. So if you get over to a good start, you have a lot less to worry about. You want to have some momentum going and not have a bad start where you’re doubting yourself and doubting the cars. It’s all about getting the momentum and carrying it through the season.”
“I haven’t been able to do that [finish well at the Icebreaker] in the past couple of years,” said Lia. “Stupid things have happened in the first race – like wheels coming loose, getting caught in a wreck or running out of fuel. It’s always been like we just need to get it out of our way when the season starts. A championship year is when you don’t have to get that out of the way. It’s when the bad luck doesn’t come at all. Hopefully, we can get through the Icebreaker with a good clean run and have a shot at the win.”
Then again, there is a school of thought that one race really can’t matter that much…right?
“You know what? The last three years, I’ve started out strong and ended badly and I’ve also started badly and ended the year strong,” said Zach Sylvester. “But obviously, you want to get started off on the right foot. You don’t have to win, but finishing strong definitely gets everybody’s adrenaline going for the year.”
"Obviously if you have a good race, you’ll be pretty pumped up for the rest of the year,” said 2003 Modified Tour champion Todd Szegedy. “I don’t know, it’s just another race. We’ve started off the Icebreaker with good finishes and we’ve also started off with bad finishes. I think by halfway through the season that’s where you’re really going to see what you’ve really got, working whatever bugs out. The Icebreaker’s good because all the new guys that come in, we get together, we get to see how we are as a team. It’s an important race, just for running good, but also for putting the team together."
And then there are some drivers who just love it anytime that they can race on the lightning fast Thompson 5/8th-mile track.
“We’re real happy to go to Thompson for the first race. I love that track. I’ve had good experiences there and good races. Hopefully, we can win one there. To win the first race of the year would kick the season off right.”
The Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway is scheduled for this Friday through Sunday, April 13th-15th,. Qualifying will take place on Saturday afternoon and pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour feature are set for approximately 2:45pm on Sunday.
Speed51.com will be on hand throughout the weekend to provide Trackside Now updates live from the track.
Todd Szegedy tested two cars at Thompson to prepare for the Icebreaker. (April Barker Photo)