RPW Column: Great Way To Start 2023 For Team 74 By JR Heffner; Wins Opening Night At Lebanon Valley
Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – It was a tale of two races for 74 Operations Saturday night at Lebanon Valley Speedway during their annual lid lifter.
First…the downside. Their primary driver, John Virgilio, qualified for the feature but was unable to start the main event after an apparent fuel pump issue as the field was getting ready to fire for the main event.
He ended up being scored 22nd on the night.
Now…the upside. Team owner, JR Heffner, who originally wasn’t suppose to be running a DIRTcar Big Block Modified on this evening, putting all of the team’s resources into Virgilio’s efforts, won his heat race and ended up the night in victory lane.
What are the odds, huh?
Well, for Heffner, pretty good as the veteran stalked leader Kyle Sheldon for nearly the entire 30-lap distance. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, Heffner made the move.
As Sheldon’s #42 slid high, over the razor-thin cushion, in turns three, Heffner drove underneath and then held off defending Champion Andy Bachetti to score the $4,000 payday.
“What a race,” Heffner said. “I was following Sheldon around and was like, boy, he’s out-driving me. This is really pissing me off.”
As stated, Heffner stalked Sheldon, lap after lap, only to see the East Nassau, NY pilot make the only mistake of his race, but it was at the most inopportune time, and it cost him the lead.
“I don’t know what really happened to Kyle at the end,” he said. “He was running that thing right by the wall. I give him a lot of credit.”
However, to be able to take advantage of Sheldon’s mistake, the #74H had to be right on him, waiting for an opening, and Heffner was.
“It was tough tonight,” he said. “Dirty air made things interesting. I was able to get underneath but just wasn’t able to get enough bite coming off the corners. Then, towards the end, I got a shot in the back and was like, oh, somebody else is here. Time to go!”
That other car was the #4 of Bachetti who had slowly worked his way into third after fierce battle with Marc Johnson. Then, Bachetti began to reel in the two leaders to make it a three-car fight up in front.
“Andy would have spoiled things if given the chance, I’m sure,” he said. “Glad we were able to hang on. It was a great race.”
Even with the win, Heffner still put the focus for this season on his teammate.
“This isn’t about me this year,” he said. “We’re working to get John (Virgilio) going. He’s going to be the future here in the 74. However, in the meantime, we’ll just keep digging.”
Right now, it’s race-by-race for Heffner, but he was quick to thank his supporters as he visited victory lane for the first time since 2021 Saturday night.
“This is all for the crew and our great partners,” he said. “A. Colarusso, Upstate Utilities, Lance & Jill Sharpe, Williams & Kingsley, Turner Auto, Claverack Service, Bedell horsepower and Bicknell chassis. They all helped us get to where we are tonight.”
While it was Heffner’s night, unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be for Kyle Sheldon who ran a near flawless race but came up just short for win on opening night.
“It really was a good night for everyone on this Alex Thomson-owned 42 race car,” Sheldon said. “We very nearly had the win, but once I knew JR was close, I turned the wick up a big and it cost me.”
Was there any warning with the handling going away?
“No, this was all on me,” he said. “When I started to drive a little bit harder, I ended up getting a bit of a brake push and that’s what costs us.”
Up until that point, Sheldon was running a great race and seemed to have the field covered.
“I thought we were in good shape,” he said. “Then, I started to notice more flashes from the photographers so I knew someone had to be close. That’s when I go up on the wheel a little bit more.”
All-in-all, Sheldon is extremely happy with his third place run on opening night.
“This is a super way to start our season,” he said. “Even though it’s not a win, we showed we mean business this year and will be tough all season. I’m very happy right now.”
The meat of the sandwich between Heffner and Sheldon at the finish was Bachetti who brought his black and yellow #4 home in the runner-up spot. Did Andy run out of laps or would he have needed the aid of another caution?
“Another restart could have definitely benefited us tonight, especially once we got to second,” Bachetti said. “It was tough to pass so I could have definitely used another double-file restart for a shot at JR.”
As the night went on, the track really began to take rubber, making it an extremely slippery surface. Was that to something Bachetti used to his advantage?
“The slippery conditions would have been okay tonight,” he said. “The only problem was, there really weren’t two lanes to use. Congrats to JR but we were close tonight. Thanks to my crew and all our sponsors. This is a good start to 2023 for us.”
Johnson brought the Kevin Starchak-owned #9 home in the fourth position with Vermont-native Olden Dwyer coming home in fifth.
The 2023 season for the Sportsman division began just like 2022 ended, with Tim Hartman Jr. at the top of the scoring pylon.
Hartman, who captured the track title one season ago, used the heads-up start to begin the 20-lap main event on the inside front row.
Even though he slipped back to third place at one point during the event, Hartman wasn’t fazed. He got up to second and was able to work his way around the outside of leader Cody Cordova after just a handful of circuits and led the rest of the way to score the opening-night win.
“What a great way to start off the year,” Hartman said. “We finished second to Whitey (Slavin) in last year’s opener and we got him tonight.”
Slavin made it interesting as he charged towards the top spot, taking it away at one point as the two leaders encountered lap traffic. However, Hartman kept his foot on the gas and drove around both the lapped car of Kevin Ames and Slavin to regain the lead before the start / finish line.
From there, the driver of the Mike Parillo #22 was able to fend off every other challenge Slavin threw at him.
“It was awesome to race like that with Whitey,” he said. “We were beating and banging but I love it. That’s what the both of us have to do here to beat each other. Our cars are just so close and both were starting up front. It was whoever had the lead last was going to end up in victory lane.”
With one final restart, just three laps to the end, Slavin had one final shot to grab the lead and steal the victory from Hartman’s hands. However, Hartman knew what he had to do.
“It wasn’t fun for sure because I know he’s fast,” he said. “He’s got every opportunity to beat me and I was just trying to hold him down on the flat as much as I could because there wasn’t as much grip down there. Luckily, we were able to pull it off.”
Even with the visiting victory lane to start his season, Hartman had someone else on his mind afterwards.
“This is for Kyle Inman who lost his battle with Cancer this past week,” he said. “We’re just thinking about all those guys and his family. I’m just grateful we can win one for him.”
Slavin ended up crossing the finish line in second with Rob Maxon coming home in third. Chris Lynch and Cordova rounded out the top five.
Even though he watch opening night practice from outside the pit gate, that didn’t matter none to defending DIRTcar Pro Stock Champion Chad Jeseo as Jeseo put together another winning effort on Saturday.
Jeseo started in tenth and was able to wrestle the lead away from leader Steven Larochelle on the 11th circuit and was never challenged the rest of the way, scoring the win in the opener.
“It was a great win for the 25 team tonight,” Jeseo said. “It was tight racing through the entire field tonight and was just a great time getting to run to the front.”
It was a truly tight battle with Larochelle for the top spot as the two were beating and banging for a couple laps before Jeseo gained the lead.
“It was great racing with Steven there towards the end,” he said. “I’m just glad we were able to get around him. We made some contact. I don’t think it was anything intentional. It was good racing with Ricky (Duzlak) like that door-to-door too. It was just good, hard racing tonight.”
Larochelle brought his #178 home in the second spot with Steve Hankle outracing Duzlak for third. Tommy Dean came home in fifth.
Third-generation driver Frank Twing Jr. was able to start his 2023 season off with a bang Saturday, taking home the opening night victory in the Limited Sportsman feature.
“This car was really fast tonight,” Twing said. “We were real fast in warm-ups and then in the heat race we were able to pull away for the win so I figured the car would be really good in the feature. I just drove it like I did in the heat and it was fast again and we got the win.”
Defending Street Stock champion Chris Stalker drove by leader Jeff Meltz Sr. on a lap nine restart and went on to score the opening night win.
Jay Casey was second at the checkers but according to Lebanon Valley officials refused technical inspection and was disqualified.
That moved Meltz to the second spot with Dave Striebel Sr. in third, Rocco Procopio in fourth and Dylan Fachini completing the top five.
Jon Shepard (Dual Cam) and Tim Meltz (Single Cam) were the two Four-Cylinder winners on the night. Bradley Batho crossed the line first in Dual Cam but was disqualified in post-race inspection.
MODIFIED FEATURE RESULTS 1) J.R. Heffner* 74 2) Andy Bachetti 4 3) Kyle Sheldon 42S 4) Marc Johnson 9J 5) Olden Dwyer 88JR 6) Kyle Armstrong 11A 7) Brett Haas 55H 8) Kolby Schroder 99 9) Wayne Jelley 45X 10) L.J Lombardo 35 11) Keith Flach 43 12) Eddie Marshall 98 13) Matt Pupello 42 14) Kenny Tremont Jr. 115 15) Mike King 55K 16) Brandon Lane 33 17) Josh Marcus 91M 18) Kenny Aanonsen JR. 43K 19) Timothy Davis 7T 20) Ryan Charland 10C 21) Paul Gilardi, 87X 22) John Virgilio 74V 23) Ryan Darcy 21 24) Kim Lavoy 3 25) Ray Hall JR. 72 26) Alan Houghtaling 250 27) Kevin Pertrucci 24 28) Ryan Heath 6R
SPORTSMAN FEATURE RESULTS 1) Tim Hartman* 22H 2) Whitey Slavin 5 3) Rob Maxon 143 4) Chris Lynch 74 5) Cody Cordova 11C 6) Karl Barnes 307 7) Brady Cordova 4C 8) Tom Pirnciotta 32 9) Matt Burke 12 10) Keith Johannessen 4NY 11) Gary O’Brein 57 12) Jim VanZandt 313 13) Jay Havland 78 14) Kevin Ames 43 15) Dillion Gannon 46 16) Kevin Ward 98 17) Tommy D’Angelo 23C 18) Alan Houghtaling 250 19) Pete Lorenzo 3G
PRO STOCKS FEATURE RESULTS 1) Chad Jeseo* 25 2) Steven LaRochelle 178 3) Steve Hankle 44 4) Rick Duzlak 29 5) Tom Dean 413 6) Nick Hilt 17 7) Zach Sorrentino 54S 8) Shawn Perez O9 9) Dave Stickles 55 10) Ryan Crellin 63 11) Brian Keough 311 12) Fred Lee 714 13) Tom O’Connor 52 14) Nick Rogers 77 15) Katrina Foster 10 16) Mike Dianda 315
LIMITED SPORTSMAN FEATURE RESULTS 1) Frank Twing JR.* 1T 2) Anthony Maxon 96M 3) Harold Rabitalle O3 4) Craig Coons 395 5) Adam Schneider 61 6) Scott Zehnacker 143 7) Kyle Swartz 79 8) Wesley Sutliff 2004 9) Alex Palmer-Sawyer 61 10) Billy Brandt 250B 11) Brian Walsh 43 12) Owen Lewis 19 13) Kent Clark 128 14) Aaron Mulready 21M 15) Matt Jordan 5MJ 16) Dylan Grogan 34 17) Mike Engwer 22 18) Becky Belisle 22B
STREET STOCK FEATURE RESULTS 1) Chris Stalker* 177 2) Jeff Meltz SR. 5X 3) David Striebel 273 4) Rocco Procopio 62 5) Dylan Fachini 9 6) Rob Partridge 22 7) Katarina Foster 10 8) Dave Striebel JR. 73 9) Franklin Smith 76 10) Mike Dianda 315 11) Milo Campbell 143 12) Chris Brown OO9 13) Kerri Vandenburg 89 14) Lou Gancarz O8 15) Nick Giardini 46 16) Jay Casey 93 17) Jim Dellea 77
4 CYLINDER DUAL CAM FEATURE RESULTS 1) Jon Shepard* 99D 2) James Guertin 7D 3) Jason Peck OD 4) Mike Duncan 6D 5) Bradley Batho O7D
4 CYLINDER SINGLE CAM FEATURE RESULTS 1) Tim Meltz* 515S 2) Joe Wolfe 777S 3) Joey Batho 7S 4) Dylan McCloud 14S