While the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour was the star attraction of the NAPA Fall Final at Stafford Speedway on Sunday, the SK Modfieds which have produced many headlines in 2015, started off the day with their final 40-Lap feature of the season. The focus of many was on Rowan Pennink trying to defeat Ryan Preece’s late season charge for the points title, but veteran Stafford SK Modified competitor Eric Berndt stole the show up front, going back to back in the win column to end 2015.
“To close out two in-a-row, I’ve never done that up here,” said Berndt. “That’s an accomplishment for me. What a great way to end our year, to finally have a car underneath me that’s capable of winning, it’s awesome.”.
On Stafford’s final Friday night two weeks before, the “Bulldog” won in a landslide. This time, a hard charging Ted Christopher, driving the car that had won eight SK Modified races at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl, lurked behind in the closing laps.
“I pitied the guy leading when Teddy got to second and as it so happened it was me. But no cautions came out to close the field up, because it would have been a dogfight.”
Berndt’s main competition was Ryan Preece, who was going out of his way to win in order to catch Rowan Pennink in the points. With title contenders in his rear view, Berndt knew what was on the line for all of his pursuers.
“You want to give them leeway, you don’t want to ever be on the other end of that where you’re going to take it if you’re going for the championship. So I definetly kept that in mind, but we’re still here to race to win and I felt I had the car to do it so had to go.”
Preece would eventually finish third behind Christopher, but it was not enough to make up ground on Pennink, who celebrated his first Stafford SK Modified championship with a fourth-place finish.
“It feels awesome to be an SK Modified champion, especially here at Stafford,” said Pennink. “The level of competition here, the hype it brings, I just couldn’t be happier to won it here.”
It wasn’t an easy race for Pennink, who avoided disaster right at the get-go.
“The first lap I was underneath (Joey Cipriano) and I didn’t think he’d come across and he came right down. I was able to back out of it almost all the way, and just caught him a little bit.”
Problems would also linger throughout the race for Pennink, especially on restarts.
“I was having a little bit of trouble shifting the car into high gear and on that one restart, I didn’t expect to fall back like that and was able to battle back and finish fourth.”
The fourth-place run completes a championship run that began back in July of 2014 and transferred directly from Spetember to April of this season for the No. 99 team.
“Everyone asked me what happened at the beginning of last season because we won five out the last 10 last season, and they’re like, ‘Where were you at the beginning? You would’ve won the championship.’ We had a lot of bad luck and a new car. We just had start off this season like we ended last season and that’s exactly what we did. We had our ups and downs here and there, just kept them to a minimum.”
The Stafford SK title was a triumph in what has been one of the most tumultuous seasons ever on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for Pennink. With an SK championship well in sight, Pennink decided it was best to skip the big show Sunday, the Tour race, and go for the hardware.
“We’ve really struggled in the Tour this year, that’s why we took this race off and concentrated on just running the SK perfect and we didn’t miss anything and we not let the Tour give us distractions. So we took the weekend off and it was worth it.”
Pennink finished the season 10 points ahead for runner up Preece in the championship. 2015 Speedbowl SK Modified champion Keith Rocco was third in standings, while Eric Berndt’s late season run brought him up to fourth ahead of Matt Galko.
Also Sunday was the season finale for the Stafford Late Models. Michael Bennett, who clinched the championship two weeks before, took his seventh win of 2015. He celebrated with son Chace, who continues to improve following a leukemia diagnosis back in August.
– By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com correspondent
– Photo credits: Rick Ibsen/Speed51.com