Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – Close but no cigar once again for JR Heffner at the Lebanon Valley Speedway.
This time, Saturday night, he ran in the runner-up spot and nearly pulled off the Modified feature event win.
However, with just two circuits remaining, defending track champion Andy Bachetti came calling, and made the move on Heffner on the outside going through turns one and two and never looked back,
Bachetti cruised to his second win of the 2021 season and did so after starting deep in the field.
“The outside line was there,” Bachetti said. “JR slowed down just a bit. Hats off to him, he ran a hell of a race and I just knew that my tires were worn out and I had to take a shot on the high side. Luckily, it worked.”
With the win, Bachetti now has 52 career checkered flags at the Valley of Speed, and was quick to point out that this was a total team effort Saturday.
“We’ve got a pretty good hot rod right here,” he said. “I can’t say enough about my team and everyone that supports this program. My mom and dad, my family, and everyone that’s involved. We’re starting to get the hang of things here and it’s pretty exciting.”
Unfortunately, however, with Bachetti grabbing the win, JR Heffner missed out on an early season trip to victory lane for the second week in a row. The former Modified track champion came home in the second position, but knew from the beginning that he may have been in trouble.
“I was toast from the drop of the green flag,” Heffner said. “Our car was too tight and I couldn’t move off the bottom groove.”
For several circuits, Bachetti followed Heffner on the bottom, inching closer and closer to the leader, but only made his move right at the end.”
“Andy rolled the center of the corner and I just had to sit and watch,” he said. “I couldn’t go up there. I had to force the car to turn. We just got beat tonight. Hat’s off to the 4 team.”
Third place went to last week’s feature event winner, LJ Lombardo. Lombardo was able to back up his victory with another solid effort aboard the Paul Wehnau-owned #35 machine and is very happy with how well his car is performing so far this season.
“I really like the way the track has been lately, especially tonight,” Lombardo said. “There’ not a ton of bite in it and that really makes the driver in you come out. We had to make some adjustments after the heat race but nothing too crazy. I guess it worked.”
With a first last week and a follow up this week of third, Lombardo is excited with the way his new race car is working right now.
“We have an all-around good balance on this new PMC Chassis,” he said. “I’m very pleased with it and can’t wait to see what we can do as the season rolls on. We’re going to do everything we can to go after the championship this year.”
Kolby Schroder and Eddie Marshall completed the top five.
Saturday night was the annual Andrew Sherman $2,000-to-win Sportsman main event and that was just fine for John Virgilio. Virgilio started 14th in on the grid and drove his way to the front to capture the event for the third time.
However, it almost didn’t happen. In his heat race, while challenging Ray Hall for the lead, Hall’s car began smoking. Track officials gave the leader the black flag and just as he began to slow and turn off the track, Virgilio was going to the inside.
The two made contact and Virgilio’s car went hard into the inside backstretch wall. Severe damage was done to the front end and the left side of the #14, but his team went to work and then so did Virgilio in the main event, passing Jeff Watson near the midway point and he was never challenged after that.
“My guys just don’t quit,” Virgilio said. “That was kind of a stupid, raw racing deal. I committed to the bottom when I should have gone to the top and let Ray go into the pits, but my guys went to work. Left side was destroyed; the front of the car’s still destroyed even now with the shock towers all bent. This thing’s an absolute pig right now but she goes.”
Even though he was able to get to the front, he knows it’s not easy.
“There’s a lot of good guys out here,” he said. “We’ve got a set up that works to run one way and when the track gets slick like this, it works out well for us. Easy by no means but we’re happy to be in victory lane.”
Second on the night was Jeff Watson who led from the drop of the green until he was passed by the eventual winner. While he’s happy with a second place run, Watson feels like he gave one away on Saturday.
“I just missed my marks,” Watson said. “My PMC was very good and extremely fast tonight. I just did not hit my marks like I should have and got beat. We’ll be back next week. We were better tonight than we were in the opening race, but the driver still has more work to do.”
The track started 33 cars in the main event on Saturday. Did lap traffic play a roll in Watson getting passed?
“Lap traffic really wasn’t an issue,” he said. “I did try to go to the outside of a lap car and I gave up the bottom. That was a huge mistake on my part. I need to race more, get more seat time, to get better, but we’ll get there.”
Kevin Ward, Peter Carlotto and Rob Maxon completed the top five at the end of the 20-lap main.
Five races. That’s how long it took Jay Fitzgerald to grab his first career win at Lebanon Valley in the Pro Stock division, and in turn, put an end to the Chad Jeseo dominance in the class in 2021.
While the race went green to checkers, Fitzgerald used an up front starting position to his advantage as he just raced the track conditions instead of other cars. He was able to hit his marks, to perfection, and came away with his first ever checkered flag on the high banks.
“Wow,” Fitzgerald said. “After the week we had, this car was junk after last week’s heat race accident. This is just amazing.”
Last Saturday, in the early going of his heat race, Fitzgerald ended up severely hurting his #56 machine The chassis was bent nearly five inches and his team went to work to get the car back in shape. They even took Friday night off from Malta because the car was finished.
However, everything came together on Saturday night.
“We knew we were quick during practice here early in the season,” he said. “I have a lot to learn here because guys like Chad Jeseo and Scott Towslee are so fast. We knew we had a good car tonight and to be able to get a win in only my fifth time here, I’m super, super excited.”
Even though Fitzgerald was able to end the Jeseo stranglehold on the win column so far in 2021, he thought for sure he was coming to challenge him.
“With two to go, I thought for sure I heard Chad,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I heard that 25 creeping on the inside. He runs clean and I was expecting to see that nose but we had a good car and were able to get it done tonight.”
Jeseo actually only got to the fifth position. Second place ended up going Johnny Rivers, who had another solid performance in his #14j machine. Rivers has put together a solid start to his 2021 season and a career-best second place finish is another shot in the arm for Team Repo.
“We had a good car tonight,” Rivers said. “Once we go to second, I kept an eye on Jay out in front. The 56 wasn’t getting away so I would have loved to see what we could have done with a caution tonight. However, congratulations to him on the win.”
With another top five finish in three races so far this season, confidence is growing for Rivers and his team.
“We’re getting closer to that win,” he said. “Our car was stout tonight. It’s been good in every event so far this year. It was fun to run door-to-door with Shawn (Perez, his teammate) early on too. We have two good cars right now and I know we still have some great runs to come.”
Steven Larochelle, Jason Meltz and Jeseo were spots three through five, respectively, in the main event.
Ryan Brown and Brian Walsh took home the two Pure Stock feature event wins with Brandon Ely (Dual Cam) and Tim Meltz (Single Cam) were victorious in 4-Cylinder.
Modified: 1) Andy Bachetti** 2) J.R. Heffner, 3) L.J Lombardo* 4) Kolby Schroder, 5) Eddie Marshall, 6) Kyle Sheldon, 7) Brian Berger, 8) Brett Haas, 9) Ricky Davis 10) Keith Flach 11) Jackie Brown JR. 12) Kenny Tremont Jr, 13) Olden Dwyer, 14) Dan Humes 15) Marc Johnson, 16) Ryan Darcy 17) Josh Marcus, 18) Wayne Jelley, 19) Mike King, 20) Kyle Armstrong, 21) Timothy Davis 22) Bobby Hackel IV 23) Kenny Aanonson, 24) Mark Flach, 25) Rob Pitcher,
Sportsman: 1) John Virgilio* 2) Jeff Watson, 3) Kevin Ward, 4) Pete Carlotto, 5) Rob Maxon, 6) Chris Lynch* 7) Whitey Slavin, 8) Micheal Sabia 9) Joseph Coppola, 10) John Stowell, 11) Walter Hammond JR., 11) Karl Barnes, 12) Jacob Perry, 13) Dylan Gibbson 14) Nikki Ouellette, 15) Dave Fachini 16) Robbie Colburn, 17) Kevin Ames 18) Dylan Grogan 19) Jeff Reis 20) Shane Powell, 21) Garrett Poland 22) John Santolin 23) Matt Burke, 24) Frank Twing JR. 25) Harold Robitaille 26) Walter J. Hammond 27) Pete Lorenzo 28) Ryan Heath 29) Ray Hall JR. 30) Alan Houghtaling 31) Bob Fachini 32) Chris Johnson
Pro Stock: 1) Jay Fitgerald* 2) Johnny Rivers, 3) Steven LaRochelle, 4) Jason Meltz, 5) Chad Jeseo,** 6) Zach Seyerlein, 7) Shawn Perez, 8) Dave Stickles, 9) Scott Towslee, 10) Brian Keough 11) Doug Olds 12) Tom O’Connor 13) Tom Dean, 14) Nick Hilt,
Pure Stock #1: 1) Brian Walsh* 2) Jeff Meltz SR.** 3) John Devine** 4) Chris Murphy, 5) Keri Vandenburg, 6) Janai St. Pierre, 7) Franklin Smith, 8) Shawn Perez, 9) Chris Brown, 10) Peter Huntoon, 11) Wayne Mahar
Pure Stock #2: 1) Ryan Brown* 2) Rob Partridge* 3) Scott Morris, 4) Clifford Booth, 5) Jethro Rossman, 6) Mike Dianda 7) Dave Striebel JR. 8) Katarina Foster 9) Rocco Procopio, 10) Chris Calkbro 11) Chris Stalker**
4-Cylinder Dual Cam: 1) Brandon Ely** 2) Lucas Ballard, 3) Jim Guertin, 4) Mike Duncan, 5) Steve Burbank, 6) Doug Howe 7) Garrett Biagiarelli, 8) John Wright, 9) Jim Williams
4-Cylinder Single Cam: 1) Tim Meltz* 2) Victor Duncan* 3) Luke Williams, 4) Bradley Batho, 5) Matt Narzynski, 6) Althea Roy 7) Joe Wolfe 8) Chris Bierce, 9) Gary Malloy SR., 10) Joey Batho,