By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
May 20, 1958 – September 15, 2019
Seven-Time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Champion
74 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Wins
Two-Time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Champion
12 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Wins
1999 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Rookie of the Year
Six-Time NASCAR Hall of Fame Nominee
When describing a championship driver, words such as dedicated, determined, mentor, strong, talented, and respected often come to mind. Mike Stefanik was all of these and much, much more.
Stefanik was born in Wilbraham, Mass., on May 20, 1958. As a young kid, the New Englander tried his hand at ‘stick and ball’ sports. Despite his love for hockey, Stefanik admitted he was never good at the sport.
Racing, as Stefanik stated, “came easier to him.” Having watched his brother, Bobby, race, he decided to enter racing as a professional. The accomplishments that Stefanik achieved are far more than simply numbers on a page.
In a career that spanned three decades and bridged generations, Stefanik became a legend. He competed with the likes of NASCAR Hall of Famers Richie Evans and Jerry Cook, Modified mainstays from the 1990’s and 2000’s including Ted Christopher and Todd Szegedy, and the future stars Ryan Preece and Justin Bonsignore.
“Mike was always somebody early on in my career that offered advice and he was always really good to me,” Preece explained.
His first full-time season in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour (then-NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour) came in 1987 for team owner Jack Koszela. Stefanik earned his first championship two years later.
In his first championship run, Stefanik earned seven victories, 18 top-five, and 20 top-10 finishes in 26 races. By the time the 1989 season ended, he had 10 victories to his name in just two full-time seasons.
In 1990, Stefanik followed up his championship run with a runner-up result. 1991 saw him return to championship form and make his NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (then-Busch North) debut. With another five wins on route to his second championship, Stefanik’s win total had grown to 20.
The move up the racing ladder was the first time that Stefanik drove full-bodied cars. In a few short years, the Northeast driver went from Modified legend to short-track legend.
After Stefanik’s last victory in 2013 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he described his late-race battle with Todd Szegedy.
The 1997 and 1998 seasons were nothing short of pure domination for Stefanik. Teamed with the Beal & Bacon team he won 23 of 44 Modified Tour races. The win total for Stefanik in Modifieds alone was 56 in just 13 years.
That domination extended from the Modifieds to the K&N Pro Series East for Stefanik. While driving for Mike Greci and future Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship crew chief Greg Zipadelli leading the team, the trio earned the championship in 1997.
It was the first time that the accomplishment of winning two titles in the same season had occurred. Stefanik repeated the feat in 1998. The balancing of driving style the K&N Pro car and Modified required, the different tracks, teams, and disciplines showed the talent he had in an era when championships were noteworthy.
The remarkable run opened the door for Stefanik to continue to climb the racing ladder in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series (then-NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series). Driving for Dave Phelon he turned heads with a top-10 and a runner-up finish in his first two Truck starts.
Stefanik went on to earn another eight top-10 finishes in the Truck Series. His impressive runs were enough to earn him Rookie of the Year Honors in 1999. Despite the success, Stefanik was out of a ride for the 2000 season.
Teaming with Art Barry, Stefanik returned to the Modified Tour and picked up where he left off. The duo earned five victories and back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002.
Among the competitors across NASCAR’s National Series that Stefanik competed with is 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Martin Truex, Jr. The duo competed with one another in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2003.
Truex remembered the Modified and Northeast racing legend fondly.
“Just his success over the years and how long he went winning races and championships was amazing. I can remember watching him as a kid. Growing up, watching my dad race and then moving up through the ranks and getting to race with guys like Mike (Stefanik).
“Just an awesome competitor. A true champion, a great guy off the racetrack. Obviously, a tough thing for especially the Modified guys, just the Northeast racing scene in general. He was a hero up there.”
Following his sixth championship, Stefanik competed in limited Modified schedules from 2003 to 2005. During those years, he earned two runner-up points finishes in the Busch North Series.
In 2006, Stefanik once again returned to the Modified Tour and championship form. His final championship came in the first year of a six-year run with Flamingo Motorsports. Stefanik earned six victories with the team and came up 27-points shy of an eighth title in 2010.
One year prior, Preece was in a championship battle of his own. In 2009, the current JTG-Daugherty Racing battled Donny Lia for the championship. Preece finished the season just shy of a championship.
As Preece explained, Stefanik offered him some advice just prior to the 2009 season finale.
“When I was in the No. 3 car back in 2009, I was going for the championship and even gave me a lot of good words and advice going into that final race, even though we came up just a little bit short, like two spots short. He was just really good to me there.”
2012 and 2013 saw Stefanik compete for Ed Marceau and Christopher Our. It was with Our that he earned his final two career victories. His final victory came at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of NASCAR’s National Series.
Stefanik battled with Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, Preece, Szegedy, Bonsignore and others.
Stefanik explained that he savored this victory because he was contemplating retirement.
“It is near the end of my career. It’s Bristol. I’ve always had doubters saying that ‘you know you’re not the best racer, you shouldn’t be doing this, if I was in your car I’d be winning more.’
“I’ve heard all of it, heard it through my whole career. I just get burned out by that. It’s just nice to win a race when you’re 55 (years-old) at one of the toughest short tracks in the country against some classy guys. You’ve got Ryan Newman, Todd Szegedy, Woody Pitkat, and Ryan Preece up there.
“You’ve got young guys, old guys, middle of the road guys, Cup stars. You had the Brickyard 400 winner.”
After the 2013 season, Stefanik quietly finished his career with four more starts. His final, and 301st career top-10 came in his final career start at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Following his retirement, Stefanik turned his attention to flying, specifically ultra-light aircraft. On September 15, 2019, the nine-time NASCAR Champion died in a plane crash in Connecticut at the age of 61.
His legacy, however, will live on. Following the announcement of Stefanik’s death, Max McLaughlin and Timmy Solomito ran tributes in the K&N East and Modified Tour races at NHMS. The duo made a parade lap to honor the fallen champion.
Stefanik has also been nominated to the NASCAR Hall of Fame six times. He narrowly missed becoming an inductee for the 2020 class.
Unfortunately, some may remember Stefanik for his post-race interview at the 2013 Whelen Modified Tour UNOH Battle at the Beach. The infamous interview was featured on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay Leno and still makes the rounds on social media today.
While some fans will remember him for that interview, Preece prefers to remember Stefanik for who he was.
“A racer is somebody, like Dale Earnhardt, Ralph Earnhardt, guys like that. Guys that built their cars that set up their cars, that won races, they were driven by success. That’s what Mike Stefanik was.
“He was driven by success. And he was a hands-on guy that, he built everything around him. When I think of the definition of racer I would think of Stefanik. I would put him in the same category.”
— #MyTrackMyRoots (@NASCARHomeTrack) September 21, 2019