PHOTO: Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. (#97) races inside of Randy Potter enroute to his only victory in 2011. Polewarczyk endured a disappointing 2011, but feels last season made him a more mature racer. (Eric LaFleche/ photo)

–by T.J. Ingerson

HUDSON, N.H. — Mature: having completed natural growth or development. Veteran: a person of long experience, usually in some occupation or skill. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.: a race car driver who has now become a mature veteran.

Polewarczyk was the clear cut favorite to dethrone Brian Hoar entering 2011. And with good reason: the Hudson, N.H., driver won the final three ACT-sanctioned races in 2010, won the Goodyear Speedweeks Cup at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, hadn’t finished outside the top ten since mid-August, and beat Hoar head-to-head twice at Waterford Speedbowl.

Enter 2011.

The driver who was supposed to beat Hoar had a disappointing season. In his 12 American-Canadian Tour starts, Polewarczyk finished in the top ten just seven times, compared to 11 for Hoar, and visited victory lane just once. Polewarczyk also had disappointing runs in the TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway, ACT All-Star Challenge at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and distant top ten finishes in the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire and the Milk Bowl at Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves after the way we ended 2010 and started off in Florida,” Polewarczyk said. “Everyone over the offseason was throwing our name out there and just talking about us like crazy to win the championship. It wasn’t that we couldn’t do it, it was just everyone was pointing their finger at us. And the first thing we did was go to Lee and get off to a bad start. We just got caught up in a wreck and I put myself in a spot that I shouldn’t have just trying to go to the front too quickly. And that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the year.”

That tone took its toll the No. 97 Pole’s Automotive team. Many key crew members left in the midst of the season, leaving just Joey, his father Joe, and one other guy showing up to the track. Polewarczyk’s only win in 2011 came with the help of fellow racer Jimmy Linardy’s crew.

The team has been able to rebuild over the offseason, however, and is excited for the season.

“Attitude means so much,” Polewarczyk explained. “When we were doing well, obviously everyone was confident and attitudes were high. After you go through so many bad weeks like that, it’s like you wonder what’s going to happen this week. Plus, we had the PASS car that we ran a lot, almost as much as the ACT car. It took away from both. This year, it’s completely different. It’s hard to explain. But I’ve never been more excited to get the year going.”

Polewarczyk has been a mainstay on the American-Canadian Tour since 2006. As he prepares for his seventh full season, Polewarczyk has matured to realize what it will take to do what everyone expected him to do last year.

“I’ve gone from that point of ‘I’m just going to drive the hell out of it, so I can get to the lead, and if I wreck, I wreck,’ to ‘if I don’t have a shot to win, I’m going to get the best I can out of it,’” Polewarczyk said. “If that’s a top five or a top ten, than that’s it. To beat Brian, you have to do that. That’s what he does. I’ve watched him a lot, and he wins a lot, but when he doesn’t win, he finishes in the top five. That’s how you win a championship and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Polewarczyk team focused solely on the American-Canadian Tour Late Model over the offseason. While they will run an occasional PASS North race, the American-Canadian Tour is their priority. Polewarczyk’s offseason maturation, along with the team changes, has brought strong confidence to Polewarczyk.

“It’s kind of nice not having everyone point their finger at us,” Polewarczyk said. “I think everyone still knows we’re a good team, and I think we’re the best we’ve ever been. We got new team members and a really strong team this year. I really think we have the keys in place to challenge Brian. I really do. There is no reason why we shouldn’t. You can look at any young driver and they’ve gone through that part of wrecking race cars and being wild. I think I’m over that. We have a great team and a great car. As long as I don’t do anything dumb, I think we will be there.”

Need more evidence Polewarczyk has matured?

“I grew a beard,” joked Polewarczyk.

Well, slightly.