CONCORD, N.C. — Mike Stefanik should be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
That statement was true long before the Rhode Island native’s untimely death (see separate story here) in a Sept. 15 plane crash near Sterling, Conn.
Stefanik, 61, won nine NASCAR championships. Seven titles came in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and two in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (then Busch North) competition. In 1997 and again in ’98, he won the championship in both divisions. No other driver has won the title in both classes, let alone in a single season and in back-to-back years.
Stefanik retired following the 2014 season. He ran his first Modified Tour event in 1987 and is the winningest driver in the history of the series with 74 triumphs in 453 starts. His last victory came at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2013.
Also racing full-bodied cars, Stefanik won 12 times in 164 K&N Pro Series starts. During the aforementioned 1997 and ’98 seasons, he won 28 races in the two divisions. While he never won a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Stefanik earned rookie-of-the-year honors in the series in 1999, when he was 41 years old.
Stefanik also won 32 times in a multitude of classes, including the Modified Tour and K&N Pro Series, at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park.
He was nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year but came up just short of election. He should have been nominated and elected years ago.
Stefanik’s nine championships tie legendary modified driver Richie Evans, who raced prior to the creation of the Modified Tour, for the most in NASCAR history. More than Richard Petty, more than Dale Earnhardt and more than Jimmie Johnson — all who have won seven NASCAR Cup Series titles.
Evans was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of its third induction class in 2012.
Stefanik should already have a place in the Hall of Fame, and so should five-time NASCAR Weekly Racing Series national champion Larry Phillips and West Coast legend Hershel McGriff, among others.
Somehow, it seems winning a handful of Cup Series races in front of large national television audiences is what it takes to be recognized by many on the Hall of Fame voting panel.
Stefanik, like Phillips, did his work on short tracks in a time before social media and plentiful highlight reels.
In many ways, it seems that if it happens on a small, dimly lit track without live television, it is deemed less important than winning on Sundays on network television. It is after all the NASCAR Hall of Fame, not the Cup Series Hall of Fame, and there may not be a more pure NASCAR racer than Mike Stefanik.
Having seen more than a few of his victories when SPEED SPORT was based in New Jersey, there were few smoother racers on the track and even fewer as classy as Stefanik was off of it.
Sure, he raced hard at times, but that’s what it takes to win at short asphalt tracks on hot summer nights, and that’s what it takes to get to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
In 1997 and ’98, Stefanik won 22 Modified Tour races at 10 different tracks, ranging from quarter-mile Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway to the one-mile tracks at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the three-quarter-mile Richmond (Va.) Raceway and the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l.
Throw in K&N victories at New Hampshire’s Star Speedway and the road course at Lime Rock (Conn.) Park and he won NASCAR touring series races at 12 different tracks in two seasons.
He also won seven Modified Tour races and a K&N Pro Series race at the half-mile Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut during those two seasons.
If that’s not versatility and excellence on a variety of types of tracks, it would be difficult to define what would be.
Mike Stefanik will be elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day soon; it’s just too bad he won’t be there to see it.