On the surface, the fact that Holtsville's John Fortin is leading the NASCAR Modified point standings this far into the season is hardly surprising. After all, Fortin, 51, is a three-time modified champion at Riverhead Raceway. But when it is considered that he almost didn't begin the season, the feat is more impressive.

"I didn't have a crew chief," said Fortin, who owns the Holtsville-based John's Fuel Oil and John's Tree Service. "I worked a lot this winter because it was the coldest on record on L.I. I didn't have a lot of time to work in the garage. I was still going to race, but not in the beginning of the year."

But two weeks before the first practice day of the season, Fortin received a call from his neighbor, and former crew chief, Kenny Lechner. Lechner, who had served as crew chief for eight seasons and was at the helm during Fortin's 2001 championship, had the itch to get back in the game.

Fortin moved his race car to Lechner's garage, conveniently located five houses down the street, and the crew chief was finally in place.

"It's just a chemistry," Fortin said of the relationship. "We had good chemistry before and it seems to be back."

Back in a big way. Entering Saturday night, Fortin holds a two-point lead over Ryan Preece of Berlin, Connecticut. Though it's always good to be on top, Fortin said he doesn't put much stock in the standings at this juncture. With nearly two months left in the season, he doesn't even pay attention to it.

"I really don't count points right now," Fortin said. "It is what it is. I just try to get the best finish I can every night and let the points fall where they fall. When you start watching points, you end up overdriving and costing yourself."

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This live-and-let-live attitude didn't happen overnight. Years of experience taught Fortin that obsessing over the numbers doesn't come without a price.

"I used to make myself crazy over points," he said. "I wouldn't sleep at night and would be in a bad mood all week long. It's not worth it . . . When you're racing against guys and you know they're leading or are second in the points, you overdrive the car and get yourself in trouble. I don't want to know who's second or third. I just race and try to get the best finish every night. That's how I run my career."

Last Saturday, Fortin found himself in a down-to-the-wire battle with Preece. Preece crossed the finish line first, but after it was determined by officials that he illegally passed Fortin by driving out of bounds, Fortin was awarded his 28th career victory.

"I know where my race car is on the racetrack," Fortin said. "When I got a foot off the line and there's a car next to me, I kind of realize that he's off the track . . . It's not the first time he's done it to me. The last time he won, he passed me under the line . . . They have to make better calls on that. That's why we have lines, so we can't go below them. Otherwise, I'll go do the figure eight course."