Tommy Baldwin is the most recent example that you can always return home.
The clock struck midnight on his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team after the 2016 season, with the 51-year-old selling his ownership charter to Leavine Family Racing. The team continues to make sporadic one-off appearances but Baldwin wanted racing to become rewarding again.
His decision? Baldwin returned to the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour last season, running a partial schedule with Donny Lia in the 7NY. The paring produced competitive pace, a sixth-place average starting position in five races, but terrible luck. Lia crashed in three of those races, blew a motor in the fourth, and finished fourth at New Hampshire in September.
It was apparently enough to drive the native New Yorker into retirement, and left Baldwin seeking a new driver. He found one at his home track.
“Donny Lia could have drove this car for as long as he wanted, but he just didn’t want to race anymore,” Baldwin said after the Performance Plus 150 at Myrtle Beach. “It’s always cool having guys like a Ryan Preece come in and drive it, but this kid here is an awesome talent.”
That kid is 30-year-old Jon McKennedy, a product of the New England Supermodified scene and a 10-year Tour Type Modified veteran. McKennedy has enjoyed considerable success racing and wrenching his own equipment but Baldwin wanted to elevate him to the next level.
“I really fell in love with him last year at Riverhead Raceway,” Baldwin said. “We were parked next to each other and I watched him all day and the kid worked his butt off on his own car and finished third at Riverhead, which was hard to do there.
“So I said, I’m gonna give this kid a shot and here we are today.”
Here is Victory Lane at Myrtle Beach, having won in their first start together in the Whelen Modified Tour. The accolades are starting to pile up for the Baldwin-McKennedy duo as they also won in their overall debut at New Smyrna last month in the World Series of Asphalt.
“When I got the call from Tommy, I knew this was going to be a really good deal,” McKennedy said in Victory Lane. “I’ve won races from back home to Florida but we just couldn’t get the NASCAR Tour monkey off our backs.”
It took 33 tries across eight years, but Baldwin was the catalyst that allowed McKennedy to become a Tour winner. It also provides him the boost of adrenaline that the Cup Series likely couldn’t at the end of his full-time run as a crew chief and owner. Baldwin missed winning.
“This is cool because I left this series 23, 25 years ago when Steve Park and I were together, winning like seven races together,” Baldwin said. “I came back last year and the car was really good, but we had unbelievably bad luck. We got tore up pretty much every single race even though we were running in the top-5.
“But let me tell you something, the field has gotten tough. There are some really, really, really good cars in this series right now. They put on a great show. I’ve had my work cut out for me over the past two years and this off-season but here we are today.”
Tommy Baldwin is back in Victory Lane as a car owner. The longtime Cup Series notable explains how he came across @JonMcKennedy and what their plans are for the remainder of 2018. pic.twitter.com/apHMUb47GB
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) March 17, 2018
Despite the opening race victory, Baldwin doesn’t expect to chase a championship with McKennedy this season. He still has a handful of NASCAR obligations and a family back home he wants to spend additional time with.
But, of course, you never say never in motorsports.
“I’ve got my races picked,” Baldwin said. “He might run his car as the 7NY and go for the points, but you never know what could happen. I’m not tabbed to go (to Thompson for the Icebreaker) but Jon is and we’ll be at the Sizzler together.”
That’s a sentiment McKennedy shares.
“Originally, we were going to do eight or nine races together,” McKennedy said. “He’s got some NASCAR obligations and we’re planning to run a lot of ISMA races this year. But, when you when the opener, that can change your mind pretty quickly. We’ve got three weeks or so to figure it out.”
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