Jon McKennedy was playing musicals chairs when it came to NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour competition prior to this season. However, now that the 31-year-old has a full-time ride, he quickly is proving he is going to be a threat to capture the championship.
Over seven years, the Chelmsford, Massachusetts, driver found himself making 33 career starts while driving for seven different car owners — including himself — and only scored one finish inside the top five.
However, although his Whelen Modified Tour success didn’t come easily, the New England driver did capture plenty of trophies in the asphalt modified community. He won four Valenti Modified Racing Series championships, including back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, and also won various other tour-type modified races on the East Coast.
Last year, he achieved another one of his goals by sealing his first International Supermodified Association (ISMA) championship.
Then, as the offseason flew by approaching the 2018 racing campaign, McKennedy knew he wanted to pounce if an opportunity to compete on the Whelen Modified Tour was to flash in front of him.
“The last several years, I knew this was something that I wanted to do because I felt like I had really established a good name for myself in the Northeast. I’ve won in pretty much everything and I wanted to go after the Whelen Modified Tour full-time,” McKennedy said. “I just never got the opportunity before, and the few people that had approached me wanted money, and I wasn’t bringing any money.”
Over the offseason, McKennedy got the call he was looking for. Veteran car owner Tommy Baldwin, who has been from the modifieds right up through the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series. Baldwin, with sponsor Accell Construction, was ready to give McKennedy the chance he was looking for.
“Racing is money driven, and you have to get the right opportunity at the right time, there are a lot of good drivers that don’t get the right break,” McKennedy said. “I was racing at Riverhead Raceway last year, Tommy was parked next to me, and he was happy with what he saw on the track. I’m a firm believer in people needing an opportunity and to get one you need to be in the right place at the right time.”
In just their first start together, the combination scored the checkered flag in opening night modified competition in the 52nd Annual World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.
Although the second night ended in a crash en route from the back to the front of the field, McKennedy’s team didn’t let their heads hang low. They loaded up, went home, and prepared the car for the Whelen Modified Tour opener at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina.
At the end of the 150-lap distance in race one, McKennedy was climbing out of the car victorious, holding his first career checkered flag on the Whelen Modified Tour in his 34th career start.
“It feels great, I feel like this is way overdue,” McKennedy said following the win. “Over the years, I was never really able to put 100 percent effort into the tour. When Tommy called me, I just knew it was going to be a great deal. I’ve won races from Florida to Canada. It feels good to finally get the monkey off my back.”
In their second tour race together at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park’s Icebreaker weekend , McKennedy was leading with the field coming to a restart inside the final 10 laps when the fuel tank ran dry. But that wasn’t the only issue they had on the Connecticut high-banks. Another mechanical issue on the car during the race caused the motor to stumble for much of the 150-lap distance, and McKennedy feels as though that issue aided in the end result of running out of fuel. At Stafford’s NAPA Auto Parts Spring Sizzler 200 at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway , he qualified third and finished sixth — which puts him fourth — 13 points back — in the championship standings heading for the fourth race of the season.
“A few years ago, I felt like I was ready to win tour races, I just never had the right pieces to do it. To win on the tour, you need the whole package. It took a little bit longer than I would have thought, but looking back, 15-20 of my starts were back about 10 years when I ran my own family car, and to be realistic, we were probably in over our heads a little bit,” McKennedy said of how far he has come. “I was just getting started and everything was new for my team.”
Right now, in the middle of an entire month off from racing on the track, McKennedy is in the middle of his own battle. He was nominated as one of the final four drivers in the “Fast Track To Fame” sponsorship program sponsored by Valvoline. Fans of the Whelen Modified Tour who wish to vote for McKennedy can do so daily on the Valvoline website, prior to the conclusion of the voting on July 3. The winner will be announced July 11.
Looking ahead, McKennedy is obviously hoping to have a chance at the championship come the end of the season. Although they had planned to run a part-time schedule, it appears as though the right strings have been pulled for McKennedy to run the entire 16-race slate.
“Our plan is to try and run the whole schedule, we both (Jon & Tommy) have some conflictions with the schedule, but we are both working on those to make sure we can make this deal happen to run for the championship,” McKennedy said. “We are certainly capable of doing it — we have been in contention to win the first three races. We have a really good team with Tommy as the crew chief, the whole package is there for us.”
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