When Ted Christopher showed up to race in the season-opening event for the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour at Concord Speedway (NC), some say they should have just handed him the winning trophy when he walked in the gate. Sure, drivers like Burt Myers, Andy Seuss, Tim Brown and L.W. Miller were ready to take the top honors, but TC is TC, no matter if he is racing up north or down south, the man just knows how to get it done in a Modified.
So, when Christopher took the lead on lap one from the outside pole, led every lap and went to victory lane, no one was shocked. In fact, except for a few interesting moments around lapped traffic, it can pretty much be said that TC stunk up the show. However, one driver switched everyone's focus from the front of the pack to the back, only momentarily, as he charged his way to the front. Yes, Christopher won the race, but it was George Brunnhoelzl, III stealing the show in his #28 Modified.
As 20 teams hit the track for practice on a sunny, Saturday afternoon, Brunnhoelzl's crew prepared for the day, just like any other Southern Modified Tour event. They bolted on some practice tires to shake down the car and get everything up to speed. Unfortunately speed was an issue as a parts failure forced them to skip qualifying and the autograph session with the fans while they swapped out the engine.
"We unloaded here, and we struggled a little bit," said Brunnhoelzl. "We were on tires from last year, so we were just trying to shake the car down. We ended up having a part failure and ended up having to get another motor.
"I have to put a big thank you out to Hillbilly Racing. Those guys lent us a motor. It is a PT motor and this thing was awesome. It would haul tail down there. I can't thank those guys enough. They all pitched in to help; everyone worked their butts off trying to get this thing changed around."
Just getting the car buttoned up before the engines fired, the engine swap forced Brunnhoelzl to start the race from the rear of the field. When the green flag dropped, Christopher took the lead from pole setter Burt Myers, but behind them, Brunnhoelzl was flying around the outside of the field. In just 25 green-flag laps, the #28 Modified rocketed his way up to sixth position. By the halfway point of the 150-lap race, he had moved his way into second position behind Christopher.
"Nobody moves up, and when you have new tires or good tires at the beginning of the race, you can move up," explained Brunnhoelzl. "As the tires get older, you have to take what you can get. We didn't have the practice we needed and we started last on the field. If we would have started up front, we wouldn't have burned up the stuff that bad."
On a late-race restart, Brunnhoelzl was side by side with Christopher on the front row, but coming out of turn four, TC scooted out to the lead while Brunnhoelzl got sideways. He gathered his car up and still managed to finish third behind TC and Rowan Pennink, but the last restart cost him a shot at a top-two finish.
"The last restart my tires were used up. Just as I went to go, I got a tap from behind and I just buzzed the tires," said Brunnhoelzl. "Teddy had a great car tonight. If that caution wouldn't have come out, we would have finished second. After everything that happened, I will take a third place."
Brunnhoelzl was right. Christopher's car was great. In fact, it was better than great. It was flawless. The only thing that slowed him on the track was working his way around lapped traffic. The combination of a great driver, a great car and knowledge of the northern tire that will now be the series tire of the south all came together to put another memento in TC's trophy case. It was, well, a cake walk for the veteran racer.
"You don't really say that (it was a cake walk), but it seemed like it was, " said Christopher. "My car was just better than everybody else's. We run these tires back up north, not that we have any more knowledge than anyone else because we never run this track, but it seemed like mine (car) would stay straighter for more laps.
"It is always a little bit easier when you are leading because you can control what you want to do. I would get in and turn really good on the bottom and come off as straight as I could, and the straighter you are the better you are on used tires. It must have worked. I was better than everybody else."
It might only be the first race of the season, but many drivers are thinking about the championship. One driver is Brunnhoelzl, who might have finished third in the race, but first among the Southern regulars gunning for the title. His team's effort put a smile on his face and a pep in his step as he works towards winning the coveted 2009 WSMT title.
"I am really excited," said Brunnhoelzl. "The car has been awesome, and PT motors are phenomenal. They have all the power in the world. We are looking forward to a real good year. We started this season saying we were going to run for a championship and we have our mind set on the championship from here on out."
Despite the regular Southern drivers gunning for the title, what about TC? Would he consider an attempt at both the north and south titles?
"I might run next week, Ace and Caraway, but I have to talk to my wife first," said Christopher with a chuckle. "You can't (go for both championships) because they coincide with each other. So I'd never be able to do that."
Still though, as the current points leader in the south, would the north Modified racer consider giving up the chase for the north title, for just one year to steal the southern honors?
"No," said Christopher. "I love it up north more than anything."
Rowan Pennink Uses Patience to Finish Second
Maybe it was the knowledge of the tires. Maybe it was just racing knowledge in general. Regardless what it was, north Modified driver Rowan Pennink used patience during the race to finish second.
"We knew with it being a 150-lap race we would have to save tires for a long time," said Pennink. "I was just saving tires and letting the guys go that would catch me. Once they wore their stuff out they came right back to me. We just didn't have enough stuff for Teddy. I think he might have just played with us, because he just drove away there at the end."
Even though Pennink's focus is the North Tour, he hasn't run his last South Tour event of the season.
"We might come down for a few more races, but we will see how the north races go, and if they are going good, we will run a few more races down south."
Andy Seuss Drops Out Early With Mechanical Woes
Completing just four of the 150 laps in any event is painful for a driver, but Andy Seuss isn't letting it bother him. After putting up solid numbers in practice and qualifying, Seuss started the race by making a few moves by the competition, but quickly saw those positions and the rest of the field go by as he broke, forcing him into the pits.
"The guys prepared an awesome car, like always," said Seuss. "We made a few minor adjustments and were one of the faster cars. We qualified sixth and started sixth. We passed a few cars on the outside early and was just going to settle in. The motor started to skip and then shut off. We came in and pulled the valve covers off; it was a blown rocker. Typically if it was in just two pieces, we would replace it, but it was in so many different pieces there was metal down in the motor and we didn't want to take a chance.
"You can only have so many mulligans in a season, and it is unfortunate we had to take one this early on, but these guys are flawless. The way this car was at Caraway (NC) at the end of last year, we realistically could win them all. That is seven races (in the season) right there and we are pretty good at some of the other race tracks and improving on the ones we have struggled at. These guys continue to impress me and I just get to be the lucky one behind the wheel."
Tim Brown and Other Southern Title Contenders Join Seuss at the Back of the Finishing Order
Joining Andy Seuss at the back of the finishing order was a few other big names, competing for the Southern Tour title. Tim Brown (17th), Brian Loftin (15th) and Jason Myers (14th) all finished well off where most expected them to be at the conclusion of the event. While Loftin and Myers finished the race one lap off the pace, Brown only completed 123 of the 150 laps due to a mechanical issue.
"We just lost a power steering pump about 10 laps in," said Brown. "It just got worse from there. I just couldn't drive it. This is definitely not the track you want to have power steering pump issues. It finally went completely out and the pump pretty well locked up. It would turn, then not turn. I about wrecked it about five times. Once we lost a lap, we just parked it. I didn't come here to run 10th."
Another Pole for Burt, But Where is the Win?
Burt Myers knows how to qualify. He also knows how to win. Unfortunately the one thing he has had trouble with is doing both on the same day. Usually if he qualifies well, he has a bad race. On the other side, if he qualifies off the pole, he races well. Saturday, even though the last time he was at the Concord Speedway (in the North-South Shootout) he figured out how to do both, the pole-setter could only muster up a fourth-place finish.
"I wanted to win more than anything in the world, but you have to look at the big picture sometimes. The car was terrible at the end and we still have a top-five finish. It is one of those situations where we just got beat. Sometimes it is hard to swallow, but we just got beat. We are going to go to Ace and Caraway next weekend and try to get two wins."
L.W. Miller: Dude, Where is My Car?
L.W. Miller finished seventh after a last-lap incident, none of his doing, damaged his car, but that might not have been the biggest issue he had in the Southern Modified Tour season opener. What can be worse than not winning the race? How about not being able to find your car.
Miller's team switched up his paint scheme this season. Instead of the grey look, he has a sporty black and red scheme, which confused him earlier in the day when he was looking for his car.
"I walked right by it," said Miller with a laugh. "I couldn't find my car."