By Shawn Courchesne ~ RaceDayCT
THOMPSON – A week before the opening event of the 2015 season for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, reigning series champion Doug Coby said his team had a lot of questions to be answered.
Despite winning the title in 2014, Coby’s Mike Smeriglio Racing team made the decision in the offseason to make major organizational changes. The team decided to go to a new chassis program, with LFR Chassis, and to a new motor, with the NASCAR spec engine program.
“We could have a really good season or we could have a mediocre season,” Coby said April 7. “I’m just not sure. There’s nothing to go off of yet.”
That list of questions regarding new variables proved to be a lot shorter by the end of the day Sunday at Thompson Speedway.
Coby began defense of his championship in perfect fashion, rolling to a dominant victory in the Whelen Modified Tour Icebreaker 150 at Thompson Speedway.
It was the first Icebreaker victory for Coby, of Milford, in 11 starts in the event dating back to 2003. It was the 11th career Whelen Modified Tour victory for Coby and the second at Thompson for the two-time series champion.
Woody Pitkat of Stafford was second and Bobby Santos III of Franklin, Mass. third.
Coby had the fastest car in practice Saturday morning, won the pole in qualifying and looked untouchable during most of Sunday’s event, leading 127 of 150 laps.
“It answers a few [questions],” Coby said. We’ve got a good car at Thompson. It doesn’t mean we’re going to have a good car anywhere else. So we’re hopefully in the running for four wins [at Thompson] this year. I don’t know. You just never know. It’s tough when you make big decision, to make big changes like that. But when you have guys like [crew chief Phil Moran] putting the car together, it’s not like this car came from outer space. It’s a Modified.”
The LFR Chassis was introduced by longtime NASCAR crew member and part-time driver Rob Fuller before the 2014 season. The spec motor engine program is a system NASCAR has been developing for a decade, though it had come with much resistance within the Modified Tour over the past few years.
“I’m just so pleased with the decisions that we made to be competitive. Really I’m just glad that everybody on the team did their job, including myself. When you have a car that’s this good the goal is to just not screw up. So I’m just so proud of my guys.
“This is one race out of a long season. It could go you know where from here. I’m just hoping that this is a springboard for us to the rest of the season. It was a tough decision for us to switch to the spec engine and switch over to the LFR chassis and we still have work to do. We’ve got to go to a lot of tracks that we’ve never been to with this car and it’s going to be a battle every week, and the series is so competitive, that’s why we made the changes.”
Coby led every lap before the front runners went to the pits on lap 75. He was the second car off pit road, but restart 10th behind other teams that stayed on track under caution. Two laps after the restart he was up to fourth.
“When I saw the … cars in front of us, I just don’t like to waste time with cars that are on old tires, I don’t care who they are,” Coby said of his methodical dicing through traffic.
Coby went by Ron Silk to take the lead for good on lap 100.
“He got loose off of [turn] two,” Coby said. “He was actually running pretty good. I ran the bottom for a couple laps. … He had kind of radioed over that he wasn’t going to fight us too hard for the lead because he was pitting later and that was his strategy. It was a smart move. As soon as I got next to him he knew I was just going to beat him into the corner.”
Pitkat, who also finished second in the Icebreaker last year, was penalized under caution on lap 61 for leaking oil while running seventh, but his team was able to fix the issues to set up his rally back to the front.
He got by Santos for second on a lap 139 restart, but couldn’t make his way to Coby, sprinting away from the field.
“We definitely had to battle for that one,” Pitkat said. “We finished second last year and it was a lot easier. Hats off to my guys. I’m so proud of them on that pit stop. They kept their composure, worked on it, found the oil leak and fixed that. We came back in and made a pit stop for tires and gained five or six spots. That helped a lot. … I was just trying to set sail for Doug, but he was so good. Hats off to those guys.”