Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – If only that lap had counted.
That’s what Mat Williamson is thinking about. What if his move from fourth to second on a lap 19 restart in Saturday’s Modified feature at Lebanon Valley had clicked off on the track’s lap counter?
Could the St. Catherines, ONT driver have put up a serious charge to challenge eventual Modified feature winner Andy Bachetti for the checkered flag?
We’ll never know, but Williamson wishes he had the opportunity.
“I really feel like we completed that lap…and then some,” Williamson said. “The caution lights came on when I was already around and back in turn two. However, that’s racing. Sometimes you’re the bug. Sometimes you’re the windshield.”
Even with that disappointment, Williamson is ecstatic with how his night went. He won his heat race and was in the hunt for a great finish all night, eventually coming home second after passing Kenny Tremont with just a handful of laps remaining.
“I’m just happy we had a good run at a place I’m not overly familiar with,” he said. “I enjoyed our night all around, to be honest. I think the place raced way different then I expected.”
What did Williamson mean by different?
“I was really impressed with how the track was,” he said. “Once you get over the fear of going fast, it turns into just another place we go to. I never thought I’d say someone could go from the back to the front at the Valley. However, I feel that with a good car, it’s not out of the question.”
Did the former Super DIRTcar Series champion learn some things that he can use when he returns with his Buzz Chew team for the two series races in 2021?
“The guys on this S&S team have a great car,” he said. “The motor is stellar and honestly, it’s pretty close to the same stuff we have with Buzz’s car.”
Will those events be the only races fans get to see Williamson on the high banks?
“I might run this car again this year if the opportunity is there,” he said. “That’s if Chase (Dowling, the team’s regular driver) can’t race and I have nothing else going on. With handicapping, we’ll have to start further back but I think we can get to the front. Obviously, we’ll need some cautions to fall our way and what not but I think we can do it.”
Kyle Sheldon had a pretty good night with his brand new PMC Modified on Saturday night, starting in the 12 position and working his way up to a solid sixth at the finish.
“We are definitely happy with how our night went,” Sheldon said. “Of course I drew a tough number (28) to start our night. That put us sixth in our heat and we got up to fourth. At least we moved forward but that gave us a tough starting spot in the feature.
Could his #42 have finished further up if he’d had a better starting position?
“I think starting higher up could have helped,” he said. “However, I’ve got a fast enough car, I think, that I don’t feel like we have to worry about that going forward this year.”
Did track conditions play into Sheldon’s favor on Saturday?
“We found our way to the top side and had some good battles on our way to sixth,” he said. “I wish the race was 50 laps because I really think once we hit clean air, we would have caught fifth in no time. However, it’s a great way to start our year and we’re excited to get back next week.”
Another driver who had a solid effort on opening night was Brett Haas. Haas, in his second season in the Big Block ranks, was the driver Sheldon felt like he could challenge for fifth. In the end, that’s where the Pittsfield, MA native finished.
“Saturday was a success for us, but it always is when you can run good and roll the car back in the trailer,” Haas said. “It is especially good when you run with the guys we did.”
Could the sophomore driver have finished better with a few more cautions or did he have a fifth place car?
“I think we were just as fast as anyone in the top five,” he said. “Maybe not Andy (Bachetti, the winner) but we were fast. However, I don’t think we were quite good enough to pass them. I got by (Mat) Williamson for a lap or two and at the last restart, I was reeling in (Marc) Johnson but then we plateaued. A top five on opening night is a very solid start to our season.”
This year, Haas and his team are only concentrating on one car per night at Lebanon. Last season, they also ran a Small Block Modified and came away with the track title. This year, their focus is on the Big Block.
Was that a little easier on opening night?
“Without a doubt it was,” he said. “Two cars are manageable when everything goes perfectly. However, as soon as something goes sideways, it makes things very difficult unless you have two separate crews. Having just the one car at the Valley this year definitely gives us time to focus 100% on it.”
Saturday was a tough night all around for Olden Dwyer.
Dwyer had the engine in his Small Block let go early in the night and had a driveshaft problem in his Big Block before he even got to see the green flag for his first lap of practice.
“I’m not really sure how it happened, but the driveshaft let go,” Dwyer said. “We’re not 100% sure but the engine turned really high RPM’s so we didn’t want to risk any further issue.”
The team pulled the engine out of the car on Sunday to bring Monday morning to Bedell Racing Engines for a check. If things were okay, they’d put it back in their car for this coming weekend. If not, they will run their back up car. That’s the piece the team’s been running at all of the Super DIRTcar Series events this season.
The 2021 season marks the first for Dwyer following the entire Super DIRTcar Series. While he hasn’t been experiencing the results he’s wanted, he feels like it’s been a good situation for himself as a driver.
“It’s been fun to travel and see new places,” he said. “We haven’t done well. Trying to figure out the coil rear suspension is tough enough. Trying to do that on the Series isn’t ideal. That’s why being back at Lebanon this year is going to be good for us. We can work on that and getting better and our results will get better too. We’re going to keep plugging away.”
One car that seemed to be moving pretty well on Saturday was second place finisher in the Sportsman class, John Virgilio. After starting 11th, Virgilio made his way to the runner-up spot but ran out of laps to catch eventual winner Chris Lynch.
“Our car was very good in the opener,” Virgilio said. “We could always be a little bit better. Our car had the fastest lap in the feature but I think we needed some more laps.”
Two other drivers who had good nights were in the Pro Stock feature, and came away with top five runs. Those drivers were Jason Meltz and Johnny Rivers.
For Meltz, who came away with a fourth place finish, it was a good start to a season where he’s not sure if he’ll be running every event at Lebanon Valley.
“We’re going to take things week by week this season,” Meltz said. “We will be there next week though. This definitely helped that decision.”
Rivers has come out of the gate strong this season. Running the Manimal chassis Pro Stock he picked up from Central NY runner Travis Welch last year, Rivers is fine tuning his piece to hopefully contend for his first career win this season.
“The new tire program we’re working on is definitely helping,” Rivers said. “I was closing in on Chad Jeseo (feature winner) in the heat race after starting fifth. That’s a big deal to me. He’s fast and a hard competitor.”
Is Johnny excited about where his team is heading?
“We’re very excited,” he said. “Our team is going to keep pushing harder so we can go after some wins. I think this year, we will get some.”
One added advantage to his operation is the addition of a teammate, Shawn Perez, on Team Repo. Has that helped out the progress on the #14J?
“Having a teammate definitely makes things easier,” he said. “We can help each other with pointers on the track or setups. From gears to tires or track conditions, we’re making each other better.”
While Rivers came home with a fifth, Perez brought his #09 home in eighth, giving Team Repo two top 10 finishes on the night.