By Brandon White NASCAR.com December 8, 2022 at 10:24 AM
Throughout the 2022 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season, no team was as dominant as Tommy Baldwin Racing.
The iconic No. 7NY ended up visiting Victory Lane on five different occasions with a driver lineup consisting of six-time champion Doug Coby, Jimmy Blewett and rookie Mike Christopher Jr., all of which helped Baldwin earn the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour owner’s championship for the first time in his career.
Being able to celebrate the owner’s title at Martinsville Speedway proved to be a special moment for Baldwin, who credited his entire team for staying flawless in their execution through all sixteen races on the schedule.
“It was a very consistent year,” Baldwin said. “My team did a really great job completing pit stops and doing everything the correct way. This was a group effort and all three of our drivers did a wonderful job.”
When Baldwin arrived at New Smyrna Speedway with Christopher for the season opener, he initially did not have any plans to pursue the owner’s championship.
Despite being a staple of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for many years, the 2022 season was just the second time Baldwin had contested the entire schedule as a team owner, yet the first part of the season saw him explicitly focus on establishing consistency with a rotating group of drivers.
Baldwin knew both Coby and Blewett were going to contend for victories when he brought them in to drive the 7NY, but he admitted that Christopher taking home a win at Jennerstown Speedway Complex in May following two straight Coby triumphs is what convinced him that an owner’s title was feasible.
The trio of Coby, Blewett and Christopher only continued to rack up accomplishments during the summer and into the fall. Christopher never finished worse than third in his three starts inside the 7NY, while Coby recorded an average finish of fifth across his nine appearances in the car.
Even though Blewett was the only driver to not finish every race on the lead lap in the 7NY following a crash at Thompson Speedway, he did manage to break a six-year winless drought in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour after leading the final 13 laps at Wall Stadium in July.
Baldwin said the unique skill set of each driver was crucial in keeping his Modified program efficient every weekend.
“They all just did their jobs,” Baldwin said. “Doug was the Tour veteran that had run the most races while Jimmy was more of the hands-on guy that helped the whole team. Mikey didn’t know any better, as he was just a rookie who wanted to get in and drive, but he did everything we asked him to do.”
While Coby, Blewett and Christopher showcased the speed of the 7NY every week, it would be a former Tommy Baldwin Racing driver in Jon McKennedy taking home the driver’s championship.
Leading McKennedy atop the pit box was Dale Hedquist, who was serving as a crew chief in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for the first time after spending the last three decades assisting short track programs around the northeast.
Hedquist figured McKennedy would be competitive driving for Tim Lepine’s brand new Modified operation, but admitted he is still in disbelief over defeating drivers like Ron Silk and Justin Bonsignore for the championship in their first year together.
“It was kind of mind blowing,” Hedquist said. “Knowing the history of those that have won the [NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour] championship before us, just being in that conversation is the highest honor any regular competitor can ask for.”
The opportunity for Hedquist to become a title-winning crew chief came about when he ran into McKennedy at the LFR Chassis shop while working for Dave Sapienza. The friendship Hedquist formed with McKennedy resulted in him joining Lepine’s program, who wanted to find consistency with an established veteran like McKennedy.
Hedquist tempered his own expectations for the 2022 season knowing how competitive the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is every year, yet he remained optimistic that McKennedy would at least finish inside the Top 5 in the point standings barring any setbacks.
After enduring inconsistent results through their first three races together, Hedquist noticed Lepine’s team start to develop cohesion at Lee USA Speedway, which saw McKennedy come within one spot of his second career victory.
Once McKennedy finally reached that milestone at Claremont Speedway two months later, Hedquist said everyone at the shop became confident in their ability to guide McKennedy to a title.
“We struggled at certain tracks,” Hedquist said. “I didn’t really look at the points, but I tried to keep all the guys focused on the next race. When we finished second at Lee, I thought we had a shot at the Top 3, but that win at Claremont put us in a different stratosphere. The whole team just gelled so much better afterwards.”
Although McKennedy did not find Victory Lane again after Claremont, he ended the year with only three finishes outside the Top 10. Of the drivers that contested the entire 16-race schedule, McKennedy recorded the best average finish with a 7.2.
That consistency put McKennedy and Hedquist in a four-way battle with Silk, Bonsignore and Eric Goodale for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship in the season finale at Martinsville Speedway, which McKennedy ended up claiming despite being involved in a late crash while battling for the lead.
Hedquist said there plenty of mixed emotions immediately after Martinsville for him and his team but said being able to join so many other notable crew chiefs as a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion is an accomplishment he intends to cherish for the rest of his life.
“This is kind of humbling and surreal,” Hedquist said. “It hit home, but it’s still business as usual. We’re already planning for our 2023 season, but once we go to the banquet in Indianapolis, I think all of this will really start to set in.”
With the same talented group of drivers all expected to fight for the championship next year, Hedquist intends to work diligently over the offseason to ensure McKennedy can win consecutive NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour titles.
For Baldwin, he does not envision pursuing the driver’s championship in 2023 and hopes to use a similar group of talented veterans and rookies as he looks to add another milestone to the 7NY’s history in the series.
Having watched his father Tom Baldwin Sr. make the 7NY synonymous with success in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for so many years, Baldwin is honored to keep that tradition going in the modern era as the owner of the prestigious car number.
“This [owner’s championship] secures the legacy of the 7NY in the Modified ranks,” Baldwin said. “This number has been around for a long time, so to get a championship really puts a stamp on everything and legitimizes our team.”