Myrtle Beach Speedway opened up the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season for the second straight year and strategy played its fair share on the abrasive oval surface. The deck shuffled many times throughout the 150-lap distance Saturday afternoon and in the end it was three tour invaders who earned the podium positions.
Teams were permitted to take on fresh rubber throughout the race, but could only change one tire per pit stop. Jon McKennedy, among a few other frontrunners, elected to come down pit road twice during what would be the final yellow flag of the race on lap 120. 2015 Rookie of the Year Chase Dowling stayed out on the track, but could only hold on to the lead for so long.
McKennedy and the familiar Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 7ny found their way to the lead with 12 circuits remaining and never looked back on his way to victory lane. It was the Chelmsford, Massachusetts driver’s first win on the Tour, but the second in as many months with what is turning out to be a powerful tandem.
“Overall, a great day,” McKennedy told Speed51.com. “Big thanks to Tommy Baldwin for giving me the opportunity. He called me a few months ago to run this car, totally out of the blue. I’m happy to make the most of my opportunity so far with the win down at New Smyrna right off the bat and the win today.”
While it was McKennedy, who plans to run eight or nine events with the team in 2018, making the winning pass, he gave most of the credit to the crew.
“The guys on pit road were absolutely awesome,” McKennedy noted. “I mean, yeah, I drive the car, but at the end of the day these guys picked up eight, 10, 12 spots every time, which was huge. It gave me the track position to do my job and just pass a few cars at the end.”
Conservation was the name of the game early on, but then it was go time when new tires were placed on the Modifieds for the late runs.
“Probably the first 90 or 100 laps I was saving quite a bit,” McKennedy explained. “That was kind of our plan going into the deal, wait for the very end, and that’s what we did. Those last 20 or 30 laps I was going pretty fast and Chase was fast, but I could see his tires were starting to go away and losing drive up off. I was able to get the lead there, set my own pace, and keep a three or four car length lead.”
It was Baldwin’s first win on the Tour as an officially listed owner under the Tommy Baldwin Racing banner.
“It’s a special place to win, for sure,” the former NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series owner commented. “I love this place. Obviously it has a lot of history over the years. A lot of great race car drivers that raced at this place.
“Being Jon’s first time here he was at a little disadvantage with the rest of the Tour cars, but good thing is I had a lot of notes here from last year. We ran here three times and had a pretty good car, got that strategy at the end, and won the race.”
On the march late in the event were a couple drivers with a host of success in Modifieds in recent years, Jimmy Blewett and Matt Hirschman. Blewett, substituting for Ryan Preece in the Ed and Connie Partridge owned No. 6, looked to have the fastest car late in the going and followed McKennedy closely.
Although McKennedy maintained the margin enough to take the victory, Blewett was upbeat following the race.
“We unloaded with no notes and spent most of practice learning what the car wanted and what I was comfortable with,” Blewett said. “My guys and the No. 6 team gelled right off the bat and that was a huge help.”
It turned out to be a successful reunion with a group in which the Howell, New Jersey spent several of his early years on the Tour.
“To start off with a second is great and to help Eddie and his team is awesome to me,” Blewett added. “Some of the same guys I worked with years ago are still with the team and made it even more awesome. Just glad we were able to show we can still do it.”
Hirschman led the majority of the first half from the pole, but the PeeDee Motorsports team chose an ever so slightly different strategy. They pitted three times under one caution shortly after halfway and took the remaining tire late in the going.
Despite the difference, the Northampton, Pennsylvania racer knows that the outcome could have gone another way if there were other potential circumstances.
“There are a whole bunch of ways you can approach this race and there’s not going to be one popular strategy that everybody falls on,” Hirschman said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what the winning strategy ended up being and I’m definitely interested in seeing what they did.”
The multiple-time Race of Champions winner enjoys that interesting aspect of what a track like Myrtle Beach offers.
“This is a race where you’re really going to evaluate afterward, all the options you could have had and what you could have done,” Hirschman continued. “That’s what is fun about this race is because most other races everybody does about the same thing, but this is a race where there are so many things that could work and all it takes is a caution to make or break it.”
Based on their results so far in 2018, the remainder of events Hirschman and team intend to pick and choose will no doubt have them as a factor.
“We haven’t been in a race yet this year where we weren’t a contender to win and if we can keep that up we’re going to win a bunch more, and we’re going to have days like this too where we come up a bit short.”
Dowling was the first confirmed full-time competitor in the finishing order, coming in fourth. Justin Bonsignore led laps in his new LFR Chassis, but wait at least one more race to break his winless drought, rounding out the top five.
Five-time and defending champion Doug Coby showed speed but did not have the track position in the end, finishing a disappointing 14th. Defending race winner Timmy Solomito surprisingly never turned out to be much of a threat and finished 12th.
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour now heads back to New England for the Icebreaker at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park on April 8.
On-demand Trackside Now coverage from Saturday at Myrtle Beach Speedway can be viewed by clicking here.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Correspondent – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Myrtle Beach 150 Results