For a few tense laps, it seemed like Corey LaJoie’s thrilling charge to the front in Thursday’s Virginia Is For Racing Lovers 200 had flipped the script on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship battle.
But as Jon McKennedy clinched his first Tour title under the Martinsville Speedway lights, LaJoie could breathe easy in victory lane knowing that he would not face the full wrath of the series regulars.
Not that it mattered all that much to the NASCAR Cup Series interloper.
“I just came here for a clock today,” LaJoie said after the race. “That’s all I care about.”
LaJoie was a dominant force throughout the race. The Concord, N.C. invader took the point from Matt Hirschman on lap 32 and showed the way through a few caution flags and a brief red-flag period, all while four drivers sorted out the championship race in his rear-view mirror.
But when a lap-130 caution flag opened the pit window for the field, LaJoie’s team faltered on pit road, leaving him mired deep in the field. LaJoie dipped down pit road a second time for fuel, ensuring he could go the distance.
McKennedy, meanwhile, cycled to the lead, putting him atop a championship battle that had seemingly been pared down by one. Ron Silk had fallen a lap down on the track before the yellow, and with Justin Bonsignore and Eric Goodale still among the leaders, the 2011 Tour champion was momentarily out of the hunt.
Bonsignore dispatched Blewett for second on the restart, threatening McKennedy for the race lead. Another yellow flag flew on lap 147, with Doug Coby retiring from the race with a brake failure. But as the field circled the track under caution, Bonsignore darted down pit road as well. The three-time champion’s four wins had corrected course on a streak of misfortune that opened the season, but a rear-end failure unraveled his quest for a fourth title.
That left McKennedy in the lead and Goodale as his closest championship challenger. LaJoie and Max McLaughlin were on the move from the rear, cracking the top five when trouble for Ronnie Williams froze the field with 14 laps to go. McLaughlin’s run came to a tragic end under yellow as he ran out of fuel, moving LaJoie to fourth for the restart.
Once again, McKennedy and Blewett carried the field into turn one with eight laps remaining. Off turn two, LaJoie bobbled in the pack and made contact with the right rear of McKennedy, turning McKennedy into Blewett. The leaders spun down across the backstretch, clearing a path for LaJoie up high while fourth-place Kyle Bonsignore launched over the spinning McKennedy’s left front tire.
McKennedy and Blewett picked through traffic to come to the caution, but both were well outside the top ten, with McKennedy unsure of the extent of his suspension damage.
Goodale, who won the season’s penultimate race at Thompson Speedway, dodged calamity to restart fourth behind LaJoie, early leader Hirschman and NASCAR veteran Ryan Newman. More importantly, Goodale had entered the race only 17 markers out of the points lead, giving him a shot if McKennedy’s damage proved terminal.
But McKennedy stayed on track, restarting 14th with two laps to go.
LaJoie got the jump on Hirschman on the restart, with Hirschman stacking up the outside line and Goodale taking a shot to the bumper from Bobby Santos, sending him skating across the frontstretch. Goodale recovered but lost ground on the track, hampering him in the title chase as McKennedy came up to speed deep in the pack.
Out front, it was all LaJoie, as he led the final circuits around the paperclip-shaped speedway to capture his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour win in only his fifth series start.
While debates raged online over whether LaJoie had made contact first or whether Kyle Bonsignore had shared some involvement, LaJoie brushed it off as a racing deal.
“I was tight to [Blewett], the outside was rolling,” he said. “And the 79 got tight underneath the 7 and hooked my left front, which hooked me into the right rear of the 79 and turned the 7. Certainly wasn’t my intention to turn either one of those guys. Jimmy’s a really good friend, and Jon McKennedy’s the only TFR car who was racing for the championship, which was the same car I was driving.”
While LaJoie grew up in the Carolinas, his racing heritage runs through the open-wheel ranks. Grandfather Don was one of the winningest drivers at Danbury Racearena, the now-shuttered Connecticut oval where the family got its start in racing. His father Randy bypassed a Modified career, moving south to enjoy success in NASCAR’s Busch Series in the 1990s and planting the seeds for Corey’s career in NASCAR’s national series.
But the third-generation racer found success in the family’s roots along the way, winning a race in the defunct NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour in 2010.
“It’s not my first win in a Modified, but it’s certainly the biggest,” he said. “This is almost like their Daytona. Besides Loudon, you want to win at Martinsville in a Modified.”
Hirschman rebounded from his poor restart to finish second, with Newman hanging on for third. Santos and New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner Anthony Nocella rounded out the top five.
Goodale, after the contact on the restart, brought his car home seventh. But with McKennedy finishing 12th, it was not enough to spoil the championship party.
Instead, after LaJoie’s frontstretch celebration was complete, McKennedy was clear to celebrate a hard-fought first Whelen Modified Tour championship.
The Chelmsford, Mass. driver ended a four-year relationship with car owner Tommy Baldwin last fall to take a bigger role with new car owners Tim and Cheryl Lepine. The Lepines, who fielded both Tour-type Modifieds and a winged Supermodified for McKennedy in 2021, stepped up their program for a full NASCAR Tour schedule in 2022.
McKennedy struggled against expectations early in the season, but a new car and a few races’ worth of experience for the new team culminated in a long-sought second career Tour win at Claremont (N.H.) Motorsports Park in July. With Justin Bonsignore’s early-season issues and Silk struggling to find victory lane, McKennedy found himself solidly in the race for the championship.
A challenging day for Silk and Bonsignore at Thompson, paired with McKennedy’s lead-lap sixth-place finish, put the open-wheel ace atop the standings by six points headed to Martinsville.
After winning four championships with Jack Bateman’s Modified Racing Series, the inaugural Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series title in 2014, the 2017 International Supermodified Association championship and a slew of Supermodified features, McKennedy was pleased to add another accolade to his resume.
“It’s amazing to be a NASCAR Modified champion,” he said. “Such a satisfying feeling. We’ve won a lot of championships in the New England area over the years, but this is the icing on the cake.”
Not lost on McKennedy was the frustration of not sealing the deal with a victory.
“Disappointing there we got wrecked there on the restart,” he added. “I thought Jimmy and I were the two best cars, and…I don’t know. Halfway down the back straightaway, I had a little bit of a nudge, the next thing you know, we were all crashing. I’d like to see a replay, I just think it’s a misjudgment on someone’s part.”
The split between McKennedy and Baldwin paid dividends for the car owner, too. After clinching the owner’s points standings at Thompson, Baldwin and his team were officially honored at Martinsville. With Blewett, Coby and Mike Christopher, Jr. taking turns in his cars, Baldwin ended the year with five wins and only one finish worse than tenth all year.
Blewett won his home race at Wall Stadium Speedway in New Jersey. But he felt he had a strong shot at a second.
“I was saving,” Blewett said. “I was trying to push Jon as hard as I could to burn his stuff up, while at the same time saving a little bit for myself for the final ten-lap run there. We had that restart, and I rolled the top on ‘em in one and two, and pretty much had them cleared, just about cleared, when that happened.”
Baldwin was far less charitable.
“You get a guy that doesn’t race this series, that doesn’t really have any care, even when he’s racing the Cup Series, he’s running into everything,” he lamented. “And he took out the points leader, both points leaders, towards the end of the race. Still don’t get it, unfortunately.”
For Baldwin, a win at Martinsville was about far more than the owner’s championship.
“This place means more to me than probably any other race track in the world,” he said. “I think I’ve been coming for 42 years to this place. Coming here with my dad, winning races here with my dad, going home not making the race with my dad. Just a lot of up-and-down feelings for this place. Overall, this place has treated our family good, and I thought we were gonna get one tonight again, bring another clock home. But unfortunately we didn’t.”
Still, Baldwin was satisfied with the team’s milestone championship, sharing the moment with Blewett and Coby, who fielded his own car at Martinsville.
With a 19-race slate on tap for 2023, and only a couple months before the season opener at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, the offseason will breeze by for McKennedy, for Baldwin, and for all the blue-collar racers who compete with NASCAR’s oldest touring series.
But surely, they will find some time to celebrate before February.
Unofficial Results, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Virginia Is For Racing Lovers 200 at Martinsville Speedway:
1. (53) Corey LaJoie
2. (60) Matt Hirschman
3. (39) Ryan Newman
4. (44) Bobby Santos III
5. (92) Anthony Nocella
6. (24) Andrew Krause
7. (58) Eric Goodale
8. (64) Austin Beers
9. (54) Tommy Catalano
10. (34) J.B. Fortin
11. (16) Ron Silk
12. (79) Jon McKennedy
13. (99) Jamie Tomaino
14. (20) Eddie McCarthy
15. (02) Joey Coulter
16. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
17. (7) Jimmy Blewett
18. (2) Chuck Hossfeld
19. (50) Ronnie Williams
20. (36) Dave Sapienza
21. (29) Spencer Davis
22. (32) Tyler Rypkema
23. (82) Craig Lutz
24. (55) Jeremy Gerstner
25. (26) Gary McDonald
26. (77) Max McLaughlin
27. (18) Ken Heagy
28. (01) Melissa Fifield
29. (51) Justin Bonsignore
30. (10) Doug Coby
31. (3) Ryan Preece
32. (97) Bryan Dauzat
33. (17) Bobby Labonte
34. (07) Patrick Emerling
35. (78) Walt Sutcliffe, Jr.