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THOMPSON, Conn. – Bad luck reared its ugly head early in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season opener when it claimed the engine of reigning series champion Bobby Santos just 16 laps into the Icebreaker 150 Sunday afternoon at Thompson International Speedway.
But by the time the checkered flag fell over the speedway, however, Santos' engine woes seemed like little more than a blip on the proverbial radar screen.
Contenders for the victory Todd Szegedy and Ron Silk were both eliminated on a Lap 102 crash on the frontstretch. Ted Christopher and Mike Stefanik were both caught up in incidents while running with the leaders at various points in the event. The same was true for the likes of Richie Pallai Jr. and Eric Berndt.
Testament to just how crazy an afternoon it was at Thompson – Christopher rallied from two laps down to win and Stefanik fought back for a podium finish.
“Everyone sat around all winter, a lot of snow, everyone's ready to go, I guess,” Silk said. “Everyone wants to start the year off on a good foot, and sometimes you try a little too hard.”
Silk likely suffered the worst fate of anyone. He led 40 laps before pitting with the leaders around the midpoint of the race.
But as he tried to claw back toward the front, he got into the back of Stefanik in Turn 3 and ended up getting black-flagged by NASCAR for overly aggressive driving. That's when a melee touched off in front of him on the frontstretch, collecting several cars and sending his No. 6 T.S. Haulers Chevrolet soaring through the air.
“I don't really know what caused it,” Silk said. “There were a couple of cars in front of me, and we got all jammed up. I got us behind the eight-ball a little bit getting black-flagged with (Stefanik). I was just going for everything I had, and all of a sudden they were stopped in front of me. I had nowhere to go and just kind of piled into it.
“We got pretty airborne there, but I don't know what caused it to happen.”
Silk said the bigger picture – that other championship hopefuls also ran into bad luck – was of little consequence.
“It's too early in the year to be worried about any of that,” said Silk, who finished 23rd in the 33-car field. “I'm just disappointed because I thought we had a good shot at winning the race. I'm disappointed that we're not out there to fight for it.”
HE'S CRACKED: No. 4 Mystic Missile Dodge crew chief Bob Mueller wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what had happened to Santos on Lap 16, but the multiple-time championship-winning crew chief had an idea.
“We might have a cracked piston,” Mueller said. “We were smoking the right side tire. Right after (Christopher) passed him (for the lead on Lap 11), it started laying down. We had a real good race car, but just nothing to show for it.”
Santos won the pole for the Icebreaker on Saturday by setting the Thompson track record.
EARLY START: Mike Stefanik crept up on the Tour championship chase in 2010 as the season wound down, but the driver of the No. 16 Diversified Metals Pontiac showed Sunday that the team might have the mettle to be more of an overt title threat this season.
Even after being spun out midway through the event when Silk got into him, he rallied back to finish on the podium in third.
“It's like F-1,” Stefanik joked. “You've got to make the podium or you have a bad day.
“We didn't start out so good. We pitted, and pitted again, and made a few adjustments. She came alive, and we salvaged a third out of it. That was the best we could do today.”
Stefanik won out on a spirited battle for third with Ryan Preece over the final laps.
“We had a good battle, I guess,” Preece said. “I wish I could have made it a lot tougher on him.”