By Travis Barrett
LOUDON, N.H. — A caution period midway through the Andrew Blacksmith 100 Saturday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway significantly altered the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship chase.
A restart on lap 56 — immediately following the race’s halfway break allowing teams to change tires and make adjustments on their cars — touched off a chain-reaction wreck at the start-finish line that sent one multi-time champion to the garage and at least partially damaged more than a half-dozen other contenders. Included in the carnage was pole-sitter and race leader Doug Coby and one of the division’s most consistent performers this season in Woody Pitkat.
As the cars came to the green flag, Coby’s car slid slightly sideways. Donny Lia, who restarted fourth behind Coby, got into the back of him — turning Coby straight into Pitkat in the inside lane. Both Coby and Pitkat made contact with the outside wall, turning the frontstretch into a demolition derby as the rest of the field took evasive action.
“I wiggled, spun the tires a little bit and then just got finished off,” Coby said. “I don’t know if (Lia) got pushed from behind or if he just didn’t think enough to back out of it. I thought I was going to gather it back and have what would have been a slower restart — our lane wouldn’t have gone as good — and then he just turned me or got underneath me and lifted the wheels up or something like that, and I hit Woody in the right side.
“It was all chaos from there.”
Lia, who drove through the wrecking around him and went on to finish second, said contact from cars behind him impacted the problem.
“I started to go and I don’t know if (Coby) spun his tires or what, but next thing you know I was just on his bumper hard,” Lia said. “I tried to stay square with him, and at the same time I was just getting shoved so hard from the back.
“When you’re the guy in the middle like that there’s really nothing you can do, especially when the restart has already started and everybody is accelerating. You hate to see that happen. You hate to be in the middle of it.”
Coby’s day was finished after the incident, and he was credited with a 30th-place finish in the 34-car field. After entering the race tied with Ryan Preece atop the Tour standings, Coby dropped to fourth — 25 points out of the lead. Eventual race winner Todd Szegedy moved to third in the points.
Preece finished sixth, having successfully navigated his way through the altercation, a move that allowed him to take sole possession of the championship lead.
“Happy and I guess a little disappointed at the same time,” Preece said of his day, admitting he’d hoped to gain a little more traction in the standings following the wreck. “We had a real solid car but we got shuffled back to fifth, and when we got shuffled back it was really hard to find air to keep the car balanced. We had a really good car overall, though, and I’m really happy about that.”
Pitkat’s day went from dominant to disaster to digestible in the span of about 30 minutes on the track.
He restarted at the back of the field following the lap 56 accident, but he was unable to return to the same form he enjoyed early in the race — when he drove up through the field seemingly at will after starting 11th to take the lead by lap 36.
“At one point there, it felt pretty frustrating because the thing was vibrating really bad and we weren’t gaining and there was nowhere to go,” Pitkat said of his car following the accident. “When we came back in and put our old tires back on (on lap 62), I knew the vibration was gone and maybe we could have something still. At that point, you’ve just got to battle. You’ve got to salvage.
“There’s one thing that I never will do, since day one, and that’s give up. I’ll never give up no matter what. Some of these guys will give up if their car isn’t that good. I’m never giving up.”
Pitkat’s rally to finish seventh left him second in the standings heading out of the Andy Blacksmith 100 — just three points behind Preece. In seven races this season, Pitkat has six top five finishes and seven top 10s.
His disappointment, though, was compounded by the fact he employed a race car that was more than capable of winning, just as he had done in the All-Star Shootout here Friday.
“I absolutely did. We had a really good car,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it could have been a lot worse. I’m glad it wasn’t as bad as it (could have been).”
The same couldn’t be said for Coby, whose focus now becomes winning races, leading laps and collecting as many bonus points as possible over the final eight races of the season.
“It started by the little tire spin, but it wasn’t huge. I didn’t think it was something we would have gotten wrecked from,” said Coby, the 2012 and 2014 Tour champion. “Obviously when you’re spinning the tires, the only thing you can do is back out of it to control the tire spin, and then get it in gear and go. As I was backing out of it, I got run over. It’s tough here.
“If I didn’t spin the tires, I wouldn’t have gotten wrecked, so it’s got to start with me. But sometimes, when you’re behind guys, you’ve got to give them a little space and let them correct it for the good of everybody.”
Pitkat agreed with Coby’s assessment that patience would have served everybody better.
“I don’t know what happened there,” Pitkat said. “It stinks because it was (lap 56). There was still a long way to go, but Doug was probably right there. (Lia) probably should have given him a break.”