Doug Coby’s two-race stint as a relief driver has hardly been relieving for the rest of the field.
The six-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion dominated the second half of Saturday evening’s inaugural Granite State Derby at Lee USA Speedway, winning his second straight Tour race of 2022.
To become the winner of the first Modified Tour race at the New Hampshire oval since 1998, though, Coby had to outlast two of Modified racing’s best drivers at equipment management.
“I can save my tires, too,” Coby joked in victory lane.
The Milford, Conn. star had committed to a part-time schedule this year, but was called on by car owner Tommy Baldwin, Jr. to fill in for Jimmy Blewett at Riverhead Raceway. Coby led 196 of 213 laps around the Long Island bullring en route to victory, the first Tour win for Baldwin since 2018. And when Blewett bowed out of this week’s race, Coby was called to sub again.
But Coby won two of last year’s three Tour visits to Riverhead. He had not raced at Lee since 2015.
Then again, neither had most of the field.
Coby qualified third behind Matt Hirschman and Jake Johnson, who landed the pole in only his second Tour start. From the drop of the green, though, Hirschman showed the way, with Johnson settling into second. Johnson soon gave way to Coby and Kyle Bonsignore, with Coby setting his sights on Hirschman as they caught slower traffic.
Trouble for Gary McDonald on lap 60 brought out a yellow flag and the first opportunity for teams to put tire strategy into play, with all the leaders dipping into the infield for tires. Hirschman and Johnson were first off pit road. Eric Goodale followed Johnson in third, but Coby was able to get past Goodale on the restart.
Hirschman maintained his advantage over Johnson, but a lap-98 caution presented teams with another opportunity to consider strategy. Johnson and Coby stayed on the track while Hirschman, Goodale and others took another chance to stop for tires.
Coby wasted no time getting past Johnson on the restart, while Hirschman carved his way through traffic and into sixth only five laps into the run. Hirschman could climb no higher, though, and as the laps clicked off, he backed his pace down to save tires for a final charge. As Hirschman backed his pace down, J.B. Fortin picked his pace up, sneaking around Ron Silk and Johnson and into second. With Coby battling traffic, Fortin closed in on the leader.
Justin Bonsignore’s title-defense troubles continued as he looped his car in turn two on lap 148, interrupting Fortin’s charge to the front and bringing out a caution flag. Pit strategy again came into question, but the entire lead-lap contingent agreed on an answer. Coby was first off pit road, taking the outside line over Tommy Catalano for the restart. Hirschman, Fortin and Jon McKennedy rounded out the top five for a restart with twenty laps to go.
Coby wasted no time in dispatching Catalano at the front of the field, while Fortin’s fairytale finish evaporated as he slipped high and plummeted through the pack. McKennedy filled the void, charging into second and chasing Coby for his first Tour win of the year.
With two laps to go, Eric Goodale went for a spin, bringing out the yellow flag one more time and sending the race into overtime. Coby and McKennedy lined up wheel to wheel, with Hirschman third.
But Coby had managed his tires well enough to keep McKennedy at bay, leading the final 78 laps to secure the win.
Even with the overtime finish, Coby was unconcerned that the battle for the win would turn physical. “I wasn’t gonna worry,” he said. “Jon’s a clean driver, Matt’s a clean driver. But I didn’t want to worry too much about Jon and open the door for Matt to be the hero. They’re both so good. They’re the kings of tire management.”
McKennedy, who has nine wins between Tour-type Modifieds and winged Supermodifieds at Lee, parlayed his experience into a runner-up result, his best Tour performance for car owner Tim Lepine. McKennedy raced for Baldwin’s team for four years, picking up a win at Myrtle Beach Speedway in 2018, but parted ways with Baldwin when Lepine elected to step up to a full-time Tour schedule this year.
After leading the first 100 laps, Hirschman finished third. “Big Money Matt” struggled to work around traffic after his second pit stop, but pulled off the podium result in the closing laps.
Ron Silk had a quiet evening but finished fourth. Johnson, after slipping back in the pack in the final pit sequence, drove through the field to finish fifth in his second Tour start for the legendary Boehler Racing Enterprises team.
Justin Bonsignore rebounded from his late spin to finish tenth, a tough pill to swallow for the three-time champion.
Oddly, Coby is not one of the drivers challenging Bonsignore for the title. The departure of crew chief Phil Moran in the offseason and other off-track commitments led Coby to step back from full-time competition in 2022. Coby planned a limited slate of Tour dates and big-money regional shows with his own equipment, with his Tour schedule starting in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That is, until Tommy Baldwin came calling.
Coby’s two-for-two performance has been a boon for Baldwin, who has enjoyed a solid season in Tour-type Modified competition with multiple drivers. Jimmy Blewett drove Baldwin’s car to a championship in New Smyrna Speedway’s World Series in February. Mike Christopher, Jr. piloted Baldwin’s car for the Tour opener at New Smyrna, then won the Thompson Speedway Icebreaker in April. Blewett was back in the car for the second Tour race at Richmond Raceway, finishing seventh.
But a family medical emergency forced Blewett to step aside before Riverhead, opening the door for Coby to take the wheel. Baldwin’s car still had Blewett’s name on the nose Saturday night, along with a get-well message for Blewett’s daughter Kayla on the rear fenders.
Now, Baldwin’s car has a pair of victory stickers on the roof.
And there’s plenty of potential to add more.
Unofficial Results, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Granite State Derby at Lee USA Speedway:
1. (7) Doug Coby
2. (79) Jon McKennedy
3. (60) Matt Hirschman
4. (16) Ron Silk
5. (3) Jake Johnson
6. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
7. (64) Austin Beers
8. (34) J.B. Fortin
9. (58) Eric Goodale
10. (51) Justin Bonsignore
11. (54) Tommy Catalano
12. (06) Sam Rameau
13. (36) Dave Sapienza
14. (82) Craig Lutz
15. (47) Jacob Perry
16. (98) Steve Dickey, Jr.
17. (78) Walt Sutcliffe, Jr.
18. (26) Gary McDonald
19. (01) Melissa Fifield