LOUDON, N.H. – Throughout his career on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Mike Stefanik has always taken things year by year.
Now the question for the Coventry, R.I. driver is, will there be a next year?
Whether there is or not, Stefanik has decided that the time has come to call it a career behind the wheel of a Modified.
The seven-time Whelen Modified Tour champion and the division’s all-time winningest driver said he will decide at the end of the season exactly what the future holds, but he’s confident there won’t be a 2015 for him in the division.
“I’m going to focus on [the last three events in 2013] and we’ll sit down as a team and talk about it and go from there,” Stefanik said. “That’s all I really know. I haven’t made up my mind or anything. It’s always one year at a time and then at the end of the year you sit down and figure out if everybody wants to do it again or somebody wants to make a change. Either at the end of the year we talk about it and enough’s enough or we do another year, but it wouldn’t be any more than that. It would be this year or next. I don’t see it going any further than that.”
The 55-year old Stefanik won his first series title in 1989. He also had titles in 1991, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2006. He has 74 victories in 446 career starts. Reggie Ruggiero has the second most all-time in series history with 44.
“He’s had an amazing career and any one of us can only hope to do about half as much as what he’s done or even a quarter as much as he’s done,” reigning Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby said. “He’s seen everything, done everything and won everything.”
Stefanik has two victories this season, winning in the season opening event at Thompson International Speedway in April and the division’s annual event at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway last month. He said he doesn’t want to be a driver who hangs on too long.
“We had a little casual conversation, [crew chief Brad Lafontaine] and I did a couple months back,” Stefanik said. “We want to run at a level we’re both happy with and if you’re struggling it’s a tough game to struggle at for very long.”
Said Coby: “Everybody’s got to retire at some point and I’m sure Mike knows that and I think Mike wants to be one of those guys that retires competitively and having won races. He won two races this year. I think if he does go out this year, I’m not going to say it’s the right time, only he and his wife know that, but it will be a shame to not have him here.
“I always joke with him that he used to hand me my Quarter Midget trophies when I was racing at the Little T in Thompson when I was like eight. He doesn’t like when I say that, but it’s one of those deals where we all get older and if it’s his right time he’ll know it.”
Ron Silk, the division’s 2011 champion, said losing Stefanik will prove a major blow to the series.
“He’s pretty much the most successful guy ever on the Tour, it sucks to lose him,” Silk said. “We’ve lost a lot of teams now we’re probably going to start losing some drivers. They can’t do it forever, Mike can’t do it forever. But it’s going to suck to see him go. I like racing with him. I’ve always raced well with him. Racing will keep going, the world keeps going, but it will definitely take away something from our series.
“You see a lot in other sports where people stick around for a long time and it kind of tarnishes their image. Mike is still winning races and he could probably go another 10 years and still be competitive and win races. But if he’s ready to be done, that’s a good move for him if that’s what he really wants.”
Todd Szegedy, the 2003 Whelen Modified Tour champion, called losing a Stefanik “a shame.”
“I still think he can win races and I think he’s still just as good as any of the top guys on the Tour,” Szegedy said. “He is one of the top guys. He’s someone that’s a good quality driver and we’re losing a lot of drivers. The Tour is not as strong as it was. It will suck to see him go. He’s fun to race with. I think he’s a fair racer and he’s always been good with me.
“I’ve always said if I get to the point where I’m not performing any more, I want people to tell me. I don’t want to just ride around and run around in the back. I want to go to the track knowing that I’m always going to be competitive. I guess he wants to leave knowing that he was still on top and not someone that lost his touch and was just flopping around in the back. For his peace of mind I think it probably is a good idea for him to retire while he’s on top.”
Szegedy said Stefanik’s departure will prove another dooming bell toll for the division as a whole.
“We need new faces to help fill the voids and there’s just nobody coming in,” Szegedy said.
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