Late Saturday afternoon, Mike Stefanik walked into the Media Center at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a 53-year-old racing veteran who had won the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Granite Stete Classic and competed in two ACT Late Model features the day after competing in a Modified Racing Series event in Connecticut the night before.
Most men his age would have been exhausted. But for Stefanik, of Coventry, Rhode Island, the thrill of victory made this wily veteran, who started his WMT career before many of his fellow competitors were even born, a spry young kid again.
“Races like today make me feel like I am 21, but I am 53," said Stefanik after all of Saturday's action.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway was once Stefanik’s playground. He won several races at the “Magic Mile” and ran multiple races on the same weekend plenty of times between the Tour and the series now known as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. But that was back in the 1990’s through the mid-2000’s.
Saturday, in a three-wide finish, Stefanik beat out two drivers in second-place Woody Pitkat and fourth-place Justin Bonsignore, who grew up watching Stefanik become a seven-time Tour champion. In fact, Bonsignore was only 10 years old the last time Stefanik won a Mod race at NHMS.
"They said it's been 13 years, but that's not true as I did win in a Busch North car," explained Stefanik to the media. "We did win with Grizco (Racing,), but I left the (Modified) series for a few years. I went Truck racing and did some Nationwide series racing.
“I don't care about how long it's been, it's all about today and I am happy."
The race, The Granite State Classic, was an event filled with strategy like a chess match. The official box scored showed 10 lead changes, but it was more like 20 or 25 with several happening in the same lap, thus keeping the same leader in check at the line.
"I got on the radio after numerous lead changes and I said, ‘This is getting pretty exciting,’" said Stefanik. "It was a lot of fun inside the car trying to lead the race. There was so much give and take out there. It was awesome."
Stefanik led the final 33 laps, but it was not all a cake walk. He used some great restarts and some veteran tricks to foil the competition. He also changed lanes to disrupt the draft in the final laps to prevent runs.
That lane-switching almost cost him the win, however.
"I used (a late-race) red flag to come up with a strategy for the final laps if it came down to a green-white-checkered. If it came down to that, I was looking to how I could stop them from getting the lead. I took a big pound from the 2-car (Todd Szegedy), we survived it at got to the checkered. I knew it was coming.”
On one restart Stefanik looked to change lanes before the start-finish line, but no penalty was issued from NASCAR and the driver joked about it afterwards.
"Well, I guess I don't know," said Stefanik. "They didn't say anything. I guess I did change lanes. You're not supposed to do that right? I guess I am just getting old. I'll play that ‘I don't remember’ card."
The race itself was a throwback to the wild days of Modified races past at NHMS, where the lead swapped time seemingly each and every corner. Some 100 lap races in the past saw as many as 30 lead changes. Stefanik said the racing, although it was much better than a dull race there in July, could still be better.
"This race was like the days of old, except we don't do double bump drafting on the restarts. I think when they reconfigured the track to make the Cup cars have two lanes, that left us with one lane. I have said, ‘Let's take the (restrictor) plates off and race so we can fan out.’ I have suggested that, but I don't have a lot of pull with NASCAR."
After qualifying on Friday Stefanik drove to Stafford Motor Speedway to run the Modified Racing Series event at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT). The next day he ran three races at New Hampshire before coming into the media center to wrap up the days activities.
"It was a draining weekend," admitted Stefanik. "When we found out (Interstate) 495 was plugged up with a bad accident, we had to find alternate route to get to Stafford, then we just had to jump into the car and go. Then we were back in the street car to run back up here to run a race at 10:30am in the morning. I didn't do a good job over there on the 57 (ACT) car. A great job for Brian Hoar, my teammate won the race. Rick (Paya) had both his drivers win, but not in the same division."
One media member from Germany who was in town covering the Indy Car race was quickly transformed into a Modified fan. He asked Stefanik of his aspirations of moving up in NASCAR.
"I'm 53 years old, they don't want me," explained Stefanik with a smile. "I am happy to be doing what I am doing, not sure how long I will do it."