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THOMPSON, Conn. – It was all about the little guys on Sunday at Thompson International Speedway.
In a part-time ride, former NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Bobby Santos won the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire World Series 150 for his second consecutive win to close out the season, while Doug Coby celebrated his first career championship with a team that was making just its first foray into fielding a full-time ride on the Tour.
There might be bigger teams, bigger budgets and even bigger star power in other corners of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, but Sunday served notice that there are plenty of smaller operations with the know-how to get the job done – both on race day and over the long haul of a six-month season.
“When (team owner Wayne Darling) decided to go full-time, it really had to do with the schedule that NASCAR put together,” Coby said. “If it was the same schedule as last year, he would not have gone full-time. We just got lucky that it was spread out more. He looked at it with his crew chief and said, 'We can do this with our two cars and our two motors and we'll be fine.
“Let's take a shot at it.'
It obviously worked out, as Coby won five of the 14 races on the season. His sixth-place finish on Sunday in the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire 150 gave him his 11th Top-10 of the season along with eight Top-5s.
Santos spent the last two years with Bob Garbarino's Mystic Missile team, a fixture on the Tour since its inception in the 1980s. This year, replaced in that seat by two-time series champion Donny Lia, he was sent looking for gainful employment in the Modified ranks.
He found it with a part-time team in Tinio Racing. How high were the odds stacked against the No. 44 this year? Santos said when they agreed to purchase a Tour Modified from his father, they originally they thought they were buying an SK Modified that would have competed in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Thompson.
Still, Santos believed the team could surprise people, especially after an eye-opening pole and second-place finish at Stafford Motor Speedway in May.
“They have all the right pieces, and they're just giving me a really great race car,” said Santos, a two-time winner of the World Series. “The biggest thing is that they work with me, and they listen to me, and they believe in me.
“That's something I need, and it means a lot that this team believes in me.”
Santos, who has filled his summer schedule the last few years with a slew of open-wheel sprint and midget races, used that belief to fuel his efforts on the Whelen Modified Tour. Despite winning the 2010 series championship, Santos said he has still had to learn how to be a different kind of driver in a Modified.
On Sunday, he used that mentality to power past the leaders for the win.
“I don't feel like I drive like a Modified driver. I feel I'm an open-wheel style driver, and I try to race really clean,” Santos said. “The way this Modified racing is right now, you have to be really aggressive and you've got to use the nerf bars a little more. I hate doing it, but I did it a couple of times in today's race where I would normally never do that. But if you want to win in this series right now, the way it is, you have to race like that.”
Even in victory, it didn't feel natural to Santos – who also won at Stafford Motor Speedway two weeks ago to give Tinio Racing its first Tour win as an organization.
“I felt horrible,” Santos said. “I was just talking to (third-place finish Todd Szegedy), and he said, 'That's nothing what you did to me.' I guess I'm just kind of out of my league with this racing. It's just not my style.
“I always feel like I'm the one getting shoved around, but today I had too good of a race car to let people push me around. I just did what it took to get to Victory Lane.”
And in doing so, he rewarded his team with its second victory to close out a 2012 season that was remarkable for the success found by the little guys.
Coby's title was the ultimate illustration of that.
“As far as putting the pieces of the puzzle together, I knew that this team had good motors and they had a good cars,” Coby said. “The first time I drove this car, we should have won the World Series here in 2010. That was a dominant performance by that car, where a part broke and we finished third.
“That's where the story started. That's where we kind of all knew, 'Wow. This could be good.'”
The No. 52 team celebrates on pit road after Doug Coby clinches the 2012 title. Fran Lawlor/NASCAR