Friday night’s Clash at Claremont was a long time in the making for all parties involved.
For the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, it was the first race in fifteen years at the New Hampshire oval for NASCAR’s only open-wheeled division.
For Jon McKennedy, it was his long-overdue second NWMT win.
The Massachusetts open-wheel ace led 137 of 150 laps en route to his first Tour victory for car owners Tim and Cheryl Lepine.
“I’ve got a great group of guys,” McKennedy said in victory lane. “They really worked hard today, for the last two months, really, getting these cars back and forth.”
McKennedy started fourth but quickly joined a torrid battle at the front between polesitter Jake Johnson and defending champion Justin Bonsignore. Bonsignore seized the early edge, but with Johnson holding firm on the inside, he and McKennedy were forced to work the outside line to keep their advantage.
Johnson’s persistence paid off as he took the lead from Bonsignore on lap 12, but McKennedy powered past the rookie two laps later. Bonsignore slipped back through the field as McKennedy and Johnson set the pace, with Ron Silk climbing to third.
Matt Hirschman had quietly climbed from eighth to fifth when the caution flew for Todd Patnode’s stalled car on lap 63. On the restart, Hirschman made his move on local favorite Brian Robie for fourth. A few laps later, contact between Dave Sapienza and Craig Lutz drew another caution flag.
This time, Silk was the veteran on the move, slipping past Johnson for second and setting off after McKennedy as Tommy Catalano dueled with Robie further back. On lap 96, Sapienza and Sam Rameau got together in turn three, coming to rest at the outside wall and bringing out another caution flag.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner Anthony Nocella slowed on the frontstretch to bring out a fourth caution on lap 109, but nothing seemed like it could slow McKennedy’s march to victory. J.B. Fortin spun off turn two with two laps remaining, drawing attention to the flagstand, but Fortin righted his car and continued before a caution flag could be displayed.
Instead, McKennedy cruised to an easy win, 1.885 seconds ahead of Silk as he took the checkered flag.
“This was way overdue,” McKennedy said. “I had a really good deal with Tommy Baldwin Racing and we had so many seconds and poles with Tommy. We were always in contention, but just couldn’t get that W the last few years.”
Silk’s second-place finish, following an early exit from the last race at NHMS, was the best of the year for the former champion and current points leader.
Johnson held on for third, capping off a stellar week for the Modified neophyte. “The Jet” raced his way to victory last Saturday at Star Speedway with the Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series, then jumped back into a Super Late Model and finished third in the Pro All Stars Series Bay State Classic at Seekonk Speedway. In only his fifth NWMT start for the historic Boehler Racing Enterprises team, Johnson wheeled “Ole Blue” to his second pole and third top-ten of the year.
Hirschman settled for fourth, but “Big Money Matt” brought home a $5,000 bonus as the winner of the Whelen Granite State Short Track Cup, a special award based on the results of the three New Hampshire bullrings promoted through Josh Vanada’s JDV Productions team. Hirschman did not win, but edged out Silk for the bonus.
Kyle Bonsignore rounded out the top five, with Justin Bonsignore hanging on for a sixth-place finish.
Local stars Brian Robie and Matthew Kimball, both with their share of success at Claremont, finished eighth and tenth.
McKennedy’s long-sought win ended a frustrating dry spell for the Chelmsford, Mass. native. After years of running select NASCAR Tour events along with his local Modified and Supermodified schedule, McKennedy teamed up with Tommy Baldwin for a part-time 2018 NWMT schedule. In their first race together, McKennedy put Baldwin’s No. 7NY in victory lane at Myrtle Beach Speedway. McKennedy improved in his second year with the team, with three second-place finishes and two fourth-place runs in eight starts.
Presented with a shortened Tour schedule in 2020, McKennedy and Baldwin ran the full slate, finishing no worse than ninth and placing second in points to Justin Bonsignore. But McKennedy had not won since that 2018 debut, and he would go winless again in 2021 en route to eighth in points.
Meanwhile, McKennedy remained active in Supermodified racing. Following the retirement of car owners Lee and Pam Vinal, McKennedy partnered with Tim and Cheryl Lepine for 2020, sweeping all three ISMA Supermodified events run that year. The Lepines added a Tour-type Modified to the stable in 2021, with McKennedy racing the car in non-NASCAR events. McKennedy picked up a Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series win at Star Speedway in May, then swept all four ISMA races he entered.
At season’s end, McKennedy announced that he would depart Tommy Baldwin Racing and race for the Lepines in 2022, including a full NWMT schedule. Baldwin, who had fielded cars for Mike Christopher, Jr. in open events, planned to move forward with a variety of drivers.
But as Jimmy Blewett clinched a World Series championship at New Smyrna Speedway in February, as Doug Coby won back-to-back Tour races in a relief role, as Christopher earned his first Tour win at Jennerstown, as Blewett followed up with a win of his own at Wall Stadium, it seemed Baldwin had gotten the better of the split.
Not that McKennedy was without success, earning a Modified Racing Series win at NHMS in April and winning the inaugural New England Supermodified Series race at Thunder Road in Vermont. But the Tour wins that came easily to Baldwin’s operation continued to elude McKennedy.
At least, until Friday night.
Friday’s race was the first for the Tour at Claremont since 2007 and only the third ever at the speedway in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley. James Civali took the checkered flag in 2007, while the legendary Richie Evans won the only other Tour-sanctioned event there in 1985.
McKennedy, who was born two years after Evans’ victory, was one of few in the field with experience at the quirky oval, winning twice with the MRS in 2009 and 2010 and once in a Supermodified last August.
McKennedy put that experience to work against the field Friday.
And his fourth win at Claremont is surely the biggest one of all.
Unofficial Results, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Clash At Claremont at Claremont Motorsports Park:
1. (79) Jon McKennedy
2. (16) Ron Silk
3. (3) Jake Johnson
4. (60) Matt Hirschman
5. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
6. (51) Justin Bonsignore
7. (54) Tommy Catalano
8. (25) Brian Robie
9. (7) Doug Coby
10. (76) Matthew Kimball
11. (64) Austin Beers
12. (58) Eric Goodale
13. (82) Craig Lutz
14. (19) Anthony Sesely
15. (36) Dave Sapienza
16. (34) J.B. Fortin
17. (18) Ken Heagy
18. (26) Gary McDonald
19. (92) Anthony Nocella
20. (01) Melissa Fifield
21. (78) Walt Sutcliffe, Jr.
22. (06) Sam Rameau
23. (12) Todd Patnode