When Mike Christopher, Jr. made plans to race for Tommy Baldwin, Jr. at Jennerstown Speedway, he had no idea he would be driving a car that was fresh off back-to-back NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour wins.
Fortunately, meeting high expectations runs in the family.
Christopher took the lead from Tyler Rypkema with eleven laps left, then drove away to win Saturday night’s Jennerstown Salutes 150, his first career Tour victory and Baldwin’s third straight win as a car owner.
“I had this scheduled to run this race and then Doug [Coby] wins the two races,” Christopher said. “I guess I had a lot of shoes to fill.”
For most of the evening, the race was Rypkema’s to lose. The Owego, N.Y. native won his first Tour pole, then set the pace for the first half of the 150-lap feature. By then, Jon McKennedy was knocking on the door for the race lead, with Christopher climbing to third after starting eighth.
McKennedy stalked Rypkema for several laps, finally taking the lead on lap 88 with Christopher following. But under caution a few laps later, a pit road miscue bounced McKennedy to the rear of the field.
Christopher restarted second alongside Tommy Catalano, wasting little time going to the point. His time at the point was short-lived, as Rypkema drove back to the lead a few laps later. Fifth in the first two races of the season but absent from the next two, Rypkema was gunning for his own first career Tour win.
Rypkema’s car tightened up in the closing laps, while Christopher’s car came to him. He made the winning move with eleven laps to go, diving under Rypkema in turn one for the lead.
From there, the Wolcott, Conn. racer cruised to a nearly two-second advantage as he took the checkered flag.
Rypkema had every right to be discouraged by second place. But on a night where he led over 100 laps of the race, eclipsing the six laps he had led in his previous 31 Tour starts, he was pleased with the outcome. Rypkema’s finish matched his best effort on the Tour, a second-place last year at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
The bigger surprise was J.B. Fortin, whose third-place finish was the first top-five result of his Tour career. Fortin was fast in the final stages at Lee USA Speedway before fading in the final sprint to the finish.
Andrew Krause set his own career best with a fourth-place finish, with late leader Catalano coming home fifth. After his pit road gaffe, McKennedy could climb no higher than sixth.
While McKennedy was left to ponder what might have been, his former car owner Baldwin was celebrating a sudden streak of success. McKennedy raced for Baldwin for four years, winning in the tandem’s debut at Myrtle Beach Speedway in 2018. But despite four poles and a runner-up finish in the 2020 points standings, they could not get back to victory lane.
For 2022, Baldwin planned a more diversified roster, leaning on veteran driver Jimmy Blewett and rising star Christopher, who had already been racing Baldwin’s car in select open-competition events. Christopher stood in for McKennedy in a Tour race at Riverhead Raceway last fall, then finished third in the season opener at New Smyrna Speedway in February. Blewett, who drove Baldwin’s car to the New Smyrna World Series championship, took the wheel for the next Tour race at Richmond Raceway, finishing seventh.
But when Blewett’s daughter fell ill before the Tour’s visit to Riverhead two weeks ago, Baldwin called on six-time Tour champion Doug Coby to fill in. Coby, who was only planning a part-time program for his own team in 2022, put on a clinic, delivering Baldwin his first Tour win as a car owner since 2018. With Blewett’s daughter on the mend, Coby was asked to fill in again at Lee. In the first Tour race at the New Hampshire track since 1998, Coby controlled the second half of the inaugural Granite State Derby to win two in a row for Baldwin and the Blewett family.
Coby had commitments to his own team this weekend, though Christopher was already scheduled to drive for Baldwin at Jennerstown. He just had no indication that he would be driving a car on a blistering hot streak.
“I’m real proud of what Tommy Baldwin has done this year,” Christopher said. “Obviously Doug has been in the car the last two races and he won.”
Not that Christopher hasn’t delivered for the Baldwin team. The duo won April’s rain-delayed Icebreaker opener at Thompson Speedway, and Christopher placed eighth in Baldwin’s car at Stafford Motor Speedway’s Spring Sizzler two weeks later.
Christopher, of course, comes with an undisputed pedigree. His father Mike is a multi-time Stafford track champion who found modest results in his appearances on the NASCAR Tour. After stepping back from driving years ago to nurture his son’s career, the elder Christopher made one more start at Stafford last June, placing fifth to Mike Jr. in the SK Modified All-Star Shoot Out before hanging up his helmet for good.
But on a national level, the family name was made by Christopher’s uncle, his father’s twin brother Ted. Both beloved and loathed for his raw talent and unrepentant tenacity, “TC” was a dominant force in New England, winning races and track championships throughout Connecticut, earning NASCAR’s Weekly Series National Championship in 2001, and picking up a Whelen Modified Tour title in 2008. Upon Ted’s tragic passing in 2017, Stafford retired his trademark “13” from weekly Modified competition.
The younger Christopher pays tribute to both brothers on his SK Modified’s tail panel, with his uncle Ted’s numeral on the left and father Mike’s No. 82 on the right.
Fittingly, Christopher’s mount Saturday night was a tribute to a different family legacy. Baldwin’s car bears the familiar number and a cowl decal evoking the nickname of his own father, “Tiger” Tom Baldwin, a Modified legend who lost his life in a crash at Thompson Speedway in 2004. The elder Baldwin won six times in Tour competition, with more wins predating the Tour format that took hold in 1985.
The best tribute in racing, of course, is to win.
And in the last three weeks, Tommy Baldwin’s race team has been doing plenty of that.
Unofficial Results, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Jennerstown Salutes 150 at Jennerstown Speedway:
1. (7) Mike Christopher, Jr.
2. (32) Tyler Rypkema
3. (34) J.B. Fortin
4. (24) Andrew Krause
5. (54) Tommy Catalano
6. (79) Jon McKennedy
7. (77) Max McLaughlin
8. (51) Justin Bonsignore
9. (16) Ron Silk
10. (82) Craig Lutz
11. (58) Eric Goodale
12. (64) Austin Beers
13. (07) Patrick Emerling
14. (3) Timmy Solomito
15. (36) Dave Sapienza
16. (71) James Pritchard, Jr.
17. (5) Kyle Ebersole
18. (78) Walt Sutcliffe, Jr.
19. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
20. (26) Gary McDonald
21. (01) Melissa Fifield
22. (29) Spencer Davis