By Clayton Johns (@cjohnsmedia)

Six days remain until the OSCAAR Modified tour kicks off its sophomore season at Sunset Speedway. The 30-lap feature at the Innisfil, Ont. facility will mark the beginning of what is expected to be a highly competitive campaign. The series has quickly become a fan-favourite with many drivers competing for victory on any given night. The level of competition is only expected to rise in 2013 as a number of drivers have gained valuable experience through one season.

With less than a week remaining until engines fire, here are six things to watch for on the OSCAAR Modified tour this year.

6) Schedule Battle

After a 12-race campaign on the inaugural tour, drivers will face 15 events at 7 different tracks all across the province. Like the Super Late Model tour, the Modifieds will visit Sunset Speedway for five feature events. The series will also make stops at Flamboro Speedway for the first time, both on July 20 and on October 5, as part of the Oktoberfest Classic weekend.

However, the key to the championship will be the driver who can survive the dog days of summer. Starting on July 13 at Sauble Speedway, the series will see action on six consecutive weekends. The drivers who can remain clean and consistent will have the best shot at the season ending hardware.

5) Impressive Rookie Class

As many as 11 new drivers could see action this season, with at least half of those committed to 75% of the schedule or more. Reigning Canadian Vintage Modified champion Shane Stickel will compete in 2013 in a new Troyer-built modified, sporting his familiar #39, as well as former mini stock and late model competitor Bobby Tolton, who will drive car #13.

While he is expected to miss the first event of the season, former NASCAR Canadian Tire Series crew chief is expected to make his debut at Barrie Speedway, piloting a new chassis from 2Kwik chassis from Kluth Motorsports.

Third generation driver Branden Bullen, son of former OSCAAR competitor Phil, will be behind the wheel of car #67jr for the start of the season. Bullen debuted his car at the Fast and Furious Motorsports Show in Bowmanville, Ont. in early April and has tested the car since then.

Veteran open-wheel enthusiast Mike Westwood will drive car #91 this season and should be competitive to start the year. Factor in former Kawartha Speeway late model regular Max Beyore will drive car #91N this season, a brand new Jeff Hanley-built modified. Beyore should be considered a favourite for the Rookie-of-the-Year title.

Dave Osbourne made one appearance last season at the Autumn Colours Classic. Osbourne will wheel car #11 in all Saturday and Sunday events this year. Osbourne is a full-time employee of dirt track Ohsweken Speedway, which runs on Friday nights, and will not compete in Friday night events at Delaware Speedway as a result.

Other drivers who are expected to make modified debuts in 2013 are Mike Ford (#04), Albert Traves (#17), Ryan Dick (#88D), Tommy Robb (#88), and Jessica Spicer (#89).

4) Second-Year Surprises

A number of drivers from the inaugural rookie class have stepped up their programs over the off season with the hopes of taking home a checkered flag at some point this season. Last season’s rookie-of-the-year Davey Terry (#14 Wasteco Camry) will feature a new paint scheme to start the season, along with several upgrades under the hood. Terry came dangerously close to wins at Sunset and Kawartha near the end of last season, and will look to continue where he left off.

Matt Barton (#2 MDB Racecars Chevrolet) has committed to the first six races of the season, with a part schedule for the remainder of the year. Barton will also debut a new scheme to his mod, as well as an upgraded engine package.

Josh Gruntz’s (#31 Maple Key Landscape Chevrolet) 2012 best appearing car has received a makeover this off season and should bring an even more competitive car to the track each week. Gruntz routinely finished in the top-ten last year and should challenge for top-five this season.

Tim Burke (#99 Lynval Contracting Chevrolet) should emerge as a favourite this season. Burke was the recipient of bad luck on multiple occasions last season, but routinely finished near the front when lady luck was on his side. Burke should be among the series’ best this season.

Brandon Crumbie (#72) is the only regular rookie competitor from the 2012 season that will not return for the upcoming season.  

3) New Winners

Last season, just four different drivers tasted victory, and only two drivers were able to win multiple times. Gary McLean (#8 McLean Industrial Design Chevrolet) dominated the tour with eight wins. Cousin Brent McLean (#7 Bowmanville Home Hardware Chevrolet) earned two victories, including the Woolner Memorial, while his Uncle Brian McLean (#47 Bowmanville Home Hardware Chevrolet) notched a win at Peterborough in August. Steve Smith (#98 Bert’s Service Centre/Becker Bros Towing Chevrolet) was the only driver not named ‘McLean’ to win in 2012, taking checkers at Sauble Speedway.

While each of those four drivers remain heavy favourites to win on any given night, a multitude of other drivers have thrown their name in to the mix. Terry, Burke, and Barton could find victory lane this year, along with rookies Beyore, Stickel, and Westwood, among others.

That list has yet to include former Delaware Speedway weekly regulars Justin Demelo (#82 EMCO Waterworks Chevrolet), David McCullough (#39M Oaks Auto Chevrolet), and Barry Newman (#1 Vipond Fire Protection Chevrolet). Factor in veteran Monty Kelly (#96k At a Glance Printing Chevrolet) and it’s easy to see why victory will be difficult to claim on any given night.

2) Extra Distance Features

The series will run extra distance, 50-lap features on three occasions this season. The most prestigious event on the schedule remains the 15th annual Rick Woolner Memorial. The event has grown to two-days, September 14 and 15, wrapping up with a 50-lap feature on Sunday afternoon. Drivers will time trial on Saturday evening to determine their place in one of two heats. Odd number qualifiers will be in one heat while even numbers will fall in heat two. The top two qualifiers will lock themselves in to the front row for the feature, but must start their heat races to maintain position. The results of the heats will set the field for a 25-lap mini-feature later in the evening. Those final results will set the field for the 50-lap feature on Sunday afternoon.

Brent McLean took the checkers last year, but this season brings a whole new ball game. Gary McLean has won the event nine times previous. Brian McLean has also won the event twice.

Extended 50-lap features will also run on August 17 at Delaware Speedway, and on October 13 at Peterborough Speedway as part of the Autumn Colours Classic. The Delaware event should prove to be one of the toughest races all year. The track’s rough surface will force drivers to fight the wheel much of the night and save their equipment for the end of the race. That’s certainly no easy task with an $800 pay cheque awaiting the winner.

1) Title Defense

As mentioned, Gary McLean was hands down the number one driver on the tour last season. McLean and his crew chief Greg Gibson form an impressive duo that is as well prepared as anybody anywhere in the business. If not for a couple of mechanical failures and some tough luck at the Woolner Memorial, the Conn, Ont. native could have taken 11 races last year. He finished outside the top-five just one time.

So how do you beat McLean? Start ahead of him. McLean was nearly perfect in 2012 once he held the lead, so drivers who hope to upset the veteran will have to start upfront or get there quickly. With added competition this year, it should be especially interesting to see how the defending champ starts next weekend.

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