Lia's Run Highlights 25th Whelen Modified Tour Season
The 25th Season of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour was one of the most competitive in recent memory as five drivers entered the final race of the season with a mathematical shot at the championship.
As the green flag dropped on the season finale at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway on Oct. 25, however, it was a two-horse race for the 2009 crown between Donny Lia and Ryan Preece. The pair had an eventful season to get to that point, one that is sure to be memorable for both.
Lia captured the 2007 Whelen Modified Tour championship and parlayed his momentum to a ride in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the following season. When things didn't pan out for him to stay in the Truck Series for 2009, Bob Garbarino - the car owner he won the championship with two years earlier - welcomed him back for another title run.
After a season in the full-fendered Truck Series, Lia didn't skip a beat as he finished third in the season-opener and reached Victory Lane for the first time in the fourth race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Preece, meanwhile, began his second season for Boehler Racing Enterprises with a fourth-place finish in the opener and caught fire toward the middle of the schedule with back-to-back wins at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway and Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway.
As the season progressed, Lia and Preece were on a collision course, but they couldn't have known it at the time because defending Whelen Modified Champion Ted Christopher had a stranglehold on the championship points lead. Christopher won the first two races of the year and put together solid runs week-in and week-out in a bid to repeat.
Following the back-to-back wins of Preece to begin August, Lia went out and won the next two races at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Thompson, while Preece finished third at the "World's Fastest Half Mile," but slipped outside the top 10 for just the second time of the season at Thompson.
Following the 10th race of the season at New Hampshire, Christopher led Lia by 48 points and Preece by 74. But things took a quick turn as Christopher's engine trouble at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway resulted in a 30th-place finish. A similar fate befell the defending champ at Stafford in the next-to-last race of the season as he was relegated to 31st after a pair of accidents.
Meanwhile, Lia finished eighth at Martinsville and won; Stafford and Preece finished third in both. The showdown was set as Lia took a slim 26-point lead on Preece to the season finale while Christopher had slipped to third in the standings.
Commendable seasons from Todd Szegedy and Rowan Pennink had them mathematically in the title hunt entering the last day of the season like Christopher, but when the green flag dropped, it was between Lia and Preece. The pair ran up front the majority of the race, and at times threw caution to the wind with a championship on the line in an effort to win, but Christopher took the checkered flag. Preece - the race runner-up - also found himself as the championship runner-up as he was not able to gain enough ground on Lia, who crossed the line in fourth. The final championship margin was 16 points, the closest since 1996.
Lia's second title in three years was bolstered by four wins, a pair of poles and 11 top 10s in 13 outings. In two season with Garbarino and the No. 4 "Mystic Missile" team, he has compiled a pair of titles, 10 wins and 24 top 10s in 29 starts.
Runner-up Preece had the two wins, a pair of poles and a Tour-high 10 top fives. In the last eight races of the season he finished on the podium seven times.
Tour Tidbits: Season Wrap-Up
Lia Moves Up Career Lists: Donny Lia's 2009 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship season was highlighted by four wins, which moved him up to a tie for 12th on the career wins list with another two-time champion: Jimmy Spencer. Additionally, the Long Islander recorded a pair of Coors Light Pole Awards to also bring his career total to 15, which has him tied with Ed Flemke Jr. for 10th on the all-time list.
2009 Season Sees Preece Become College Student, Championship Contender: In between graduating from high school and starting college, Ryan Preece put together a title-contending campaign in just his third season in the Whelen Modified Tour. Preece, who turned 19 on the same day as the season ended at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway, recorded a Tour-high 10 top fives during the 13-race season and finished just 16 points behind champion Donny Lia in the standings.
Christopher Unable to Repeat Despite Stellar Season: Ted Christopher makes 50 look like the new 30 when it comes to racing as he seems to be in his prime. After capturing his first Whelen Modified Tour title in 2008 at the age of 50, Christopher turned in another dominant campaign in 2009, but was foiled by two DNFs late in the season. Christopher topped the standings for 10 of the 13 races and registered three wins and three poles, but had to settle for third in points.
Christopher's Record Book Assault: Winning races is nothing new to Christopher, he's been at it throughout his career. With three more wins in 2009, Christopher is now up to 34 for his career, one shy of tying Tony Hirschman for third on the all-time list. With three Coors Light Pole Awards this season, his career total now sits at 21, which ranks eighth. All three poles came at the beginning of the season, and it was the first time in the 25 years of the Whelen Modified Tour that a driver had earned more than one to start a season.
Stefanik Returns to Victory Lane: For the 70th time in his career, and record-setting fifth time at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Mike Stefanik took the checkered flag. Stefanik - who holds nearly every Whelen Modified Tour record - has recorded at least one win in every season he has competed full time, and of the 25 years of the Whelen Modified Tour, he has wins in 22. With his triumph at Martinsville, Stefanik became the first driver in any NASCAR series outside the Sprint Cup Series to earn 70 victories.
Solid Campaign for Pennink: Like Preece, Rowan Pennink's third Whelen Modified Tour campaign was by far his best. The Pennsylvania native recorded five top fives and tied with two other drivers for the most top 10s with 11. In his previous two seasons, Pennink had a combined eight top 10s with no top fives.
Another Top-Five for Szegedy: Although he missed out on a trip to Victory Lane for the first time as a full-time competitor, Todd Szegedy was able to extend his streak of top-five points finishes to four years running.
Tomaino, Flemke Build on Streaks: Whelen Modified Tour stalwarts Jamie Tomaino and Flemke continued their amazing string of starts in 2009. Tomaino became the first driver to record 500 career starts and has missed just five of the 516 all-time races, while Flemke's record streak for consecutive starts was extended to 324.