By KEN BRUCE
Just like in 2016, Jeff Strunk and car owner Glenn Hyneman were not really satisfied with the season they were having at Grandview Speedway in 2017. But just like in 2016 the team ended their season at the Bechtelsville, Pa., oval by winning the biggest race of the season thus making up for their lack of success earlier.
Going into this year’s Freedom 76 race Jeff Strunk and Billy Pauch were tied with the most wins in the speedway’s premier event with six each. However, after Saturday night it is Strunk who now sits atop the leaderboard after winning the Granddaddy event for the seventh time in his illustrious career. The Freedom 76 race has been a staple of the track for decades and this year was run in the honor of the late Bruce Rogers who passed away earlier this season. In honor of the long-time track owner the speedway decided to up the winner’s share of the purse to a healthy $30,000.
When there is extra money on the line for this special race you know Strunk is going to be on his game looking for the big bucks. In 2012 Grandview Speedway in celebration of their 50th season offered $50,000 to winner of the Freedom 76 race and standing in victory lane at that event was the “Bechtelsville Bullet” Jeff Strunk. So, you knew when the extra money was put up for this year’s event that Jeff Strunk was going to be in the mix for the victory.
The race got underway with Strunk starting in the sixth position after the redraw. Six-time winner Billy Pauch immediately grabbed the lead from his outside pole position. Strunk steadily worked his way through the field as the race struggled to get a rhythm going early on as caution flag after caution flag was thrown for mostly minor incidents. After a lap 11 caution flag for four time winner Duane Howard, Strunk was able to grab the lead from Pauch after the restart on lap 12. .
Strunk immediately started to put some distance between him and the field. While Strunk was moving away from Pauch the battles going on behind him were classics as cars were battling three and four wide trying to get to the front. The hardest crash of the night took place on lap 21 as Ryan Godown lost control of his Searock Fabrications #26 going into turn one and did a slow spin as the field was bearing down on him. Multiple cars piled into the Godown car with Brett Kressley and Nate Christman getting the worst of it after Christman did a slow roll. The red flag was displayed so the track crew could clean up the mess and check on Christman. Other drivers involved in the wreck were Ray Swinehart, Rick Laubach, Mike Mahaney, Brandon Grosso and Jimmy Horton who clipped Godown as he spun resulting in a RR flat. With the exception of Kressley, all drivers were able to return the race.
When the race resumed it was Craig Von Dohren and Stewart Friesen who were catching the eyes of the fans as they worked their way to the front. Von Dohren had started in the eleventh spot was now up to fourth and Friesen who started way back in the 23rd spot was just entering the top five when the yellow once again came out. Unfortunately, the yellow was out for Friesen who stopped in turn two with what was thought to be a left front flat tire. Whatever was the issue for Friesen was terminal as the Sprakers, N.Y., driver never returned to the track.
After another yellow one lap later the race was finally able to get a nice flow going as Strunk was still leading. Von Dohren was steadily working his way to the front and made his way past Pauch a few laps later to move into the runner-up spot. As Strunk was fighting his way through lapped traffic, Von Dohren was gaining quickly on the leader and by lap 35 was right on the leader’s bumper. The two track heavyweights battled hard and clean as they worked their way through the lapped traffic. What happened next proved to be the pivotal point of the race.
“The lapped cars played a big part in the first half of the race tonight”, said a happy Strunk in the back of his hauler after the race. “Thank God we didn’t have to worry about it in the second half of the race, but it definitely was a big factor in the first half of the race. You don’t know what to do. They’re two-wide, three-wide in front of you and you just try to get one at a time. I didn’t hear him (Von Dohren) or feel him until he was already alongside of me and then they stopped the race for the fuel stop thank God. It’s just one of them deals that could’ve went either way and tonight it went our way.”
Due to the fact that some of the cars run on alcohol and are not able to run the full 76 lap distance on a tank of fuel, a fuel stop is required. The track usually sets a predetermined number of combined green and yellow flag laps and once that number of laps is completed is when they will stop the race to allow the cars to refuel. On Saturday night, due to all of the caution flags earlier in the event the track decided to stop the race at lap 45.
The battle upfront between Strunk and Von Dohren was epic as they picked their way thru lapped traffic. Strunk was the leader as they crossed under the starters stand to complete lap 45, as the two leaders went into turn one Von Dohren made his move to get by Strunk on the outside and was able to grab the lead down the backstretch. As Von Dohren was starting to enter turn four the yellow flag was displayed for the fuel stop. As per track rules, the running order reverts back to the last completed lap (lap 45) putting Strunk back into the lead for the restart.
After the fuel stop Strunk was able to stretch out his lead a little bit over Von Dohren but CVD would run down the leader and start to pressure Strunk once again for the lead. Just as the leaders started to approach lapped traffic the last caution of the night appeared for Ryan Watt as he coasted to a stop on the track.
Once again when the green flag came back out Strunk was able to get the jump on Von Dohren but just like the last time Von Dohren was quickly back on his bumper just waiting for Strunk to make a mistake. It was not going to happen on this night as Strunk was flawless hitting his marks each and every lap and never giving Von Dohren a chance to steal the victory.
Strunk sped under starter Ray Kemp’s checkered flag to win the marquee event along with the $30,000 first place prize. A very disappointed and disgusted Von Dohren finished second with Kevin Hirthler, Kenny Gilmore and Mike Gular completing the top five. Finishing sixth thru tenth were Doug Manmiller, Jared Umbenhaurer, Ryan Grim, Frank Cozze and Brandon Grosso.
Strunk talked about having Von Dohren right behind for the last 31 laps and how the restarts played a part in the end.
“We had to be perfect there and couldn’t make a mistake. Craig is good as it gets here, he’s one of the best at this track if not the best and I just couldn’t afford to make a mistake. I had to be perfect the last part of the race and tonight I was able to do that. It feels great to win two-in-a-row for sure but to get any win here at Grandview in a big race is good thing. I can’t thank my guys enough for giving me the car we had tonight. We were good on restarts tonight but we usually are here. I pride myself on my restarts and tonight we had to be good on them and we were. He was good, I don’t know if he was better than we were or if we were better than him but it doesn’t matter at that point. If I don’t hit my marks he’s going to drive right on by.”
I also had a chance to talk to winning car owner Glenn Hyneman about what his driver accomplished on the night.
“Man he was flawless tonight; I thought he drove a much better race than he drove last year when he won because he was getting stalked the whole time.”
I asked Hyneman how it felt to win two in a row.
“It feels great win two in a row. That gives me five (Freedome 76) wins and him (Strunk) six (actually seven). So I guess I’ll have to get rid of him if I want to get even with him (laughs).”
Von Dohren Not Happy with Second
To say Craig Von Dohren was an unhappy driver after Saturday’s Freedom 76 race would be an understatement. Von Dohren was denied the tracks triple crown (Forrest Rogers Memorial, Track Championship & Freedom 76) for the second year in a row once again finishing second to his arch rival Jeff Strunk in the season ending 76er. But unlike last year when Strunk beat him, Von Dohren thought this year’s race was taken from him on a call from the tower.
As described above Von Dohren had taken the lead from Strunk after the completion of lap 45 only to have the track display the yellow for the fuel stop before Von Dohren crossed start-finish line to complete lap 46. Von Dohren questioned the tracks reasoning for stopping the race at that point when such a good battle for the lead was taking place.
Von Dorhen who races for a living was not happy with having to settle for second place money instead of the $30,000 first place prize and voiced his displeasure to me afterwards.
“Why would the throw the yellow when there is a battle for the lead when there’s no predetermined lap? They decide when it’s close to 80 laps to throw the caution, now they throw it when there’s a battle for the lead and after the fuel stop the race sucks. Every year it sucks after that yellow, the track seals over and it’s done. It’s a $20,000 hit, it’s not good.”
Hirthler Drives New Car to Third
Green Lane, Pa., driver Kevin Hirthler has had a pretty good year at Grandview Speedway. Hirthler who won on opening night in April hasn’t had the wins this season like he had a couple of years ago, but has been much more consistent with his finishes throughout the year. Hirthler finished a solid seventh in the season ending point’s standings and would’ve liked nothing better than to cap off his season with a Freedom 76 victory.
Right out of the gate Hirthler knew he had a good car under him for the night. In warm-ups Hirthler timed very fast and then easily won his heat race to put him into the feature. In the cash dash race Hirthler finished a solid fourth behind winner Brett Kressley, Strunk and Von Dohren.
Hirthler talked about his race and the new car they just put together.
“We started 22nd and worked our way up to third. I wish we would’ve had something for them at the end but we were a little to snug going into corner entry which affected the way I was driving off the corners. This is the first run for this car. We just got it two weeks ago and put it together. It’s the first race on it, we just finished up on it last night around 6:00pm and brought it over here to get some practice laps on it to seat the brakes and check for leaks. This brand new 2017 Bicknell car was phenomenal for us. The motor we had in it was a motor we bought off Duane Howard a few years ago and just got it back from Dave George who made a cam change in it for us. It had better torque on the dyno that our other motor had so we decided to use it.”
The redraw for the feature event was the only bad thing that Hirthler had happen to him all night when he drew the 22nd starting spot. With 76 laps to get to the front and a fast Modified underneath him Hirthler knew he could get there. Hirthler took his time and managed to avoid most of the on track incidents and by the time the race was stopped on lap 45 for the fuel stop Hirthler had entered the top five.
“It’s a long distance race, you gotta to be aggressive at times but yet you have to watch your P’s and Q’s because guys are slicing and dicing. The track is narrow in the beginning so you have kind of take what you can get and when stuff starts to open up there at the end you can start racing and passing cars. I thought maybe if they would get to the lapped traffic I might’ve been able to make a run but Jeff and Craig are both good guys and you are not going to catch them off guard. They both know all the tricks in the book here.”
Freedom 76 Notes:
There were 53 modifieds that took part in the qualifying for this year’s Freedom 76 race…
The five heat races were won by Frank Cozze, Kevin Hirthler, Justin Grim, Brett Kressley and Brian Krummel. The two consolation races went to Mike Lisowski and Danny Erb. The Minute Man 20 was won by Friday night’s Sportsman winner Ryan Beltz…
The $1000 to win Cash Dash made up of the five heat race winners along with the guaranteed starters (Von Dohren, Strunk and Gular) was won by Brett Kressley…
Keith Hoffman was aboard the Jimmy Reppert #97 for night. Unfortunately for Hoffman he was unable to qualify for the main event…
It was a tough night for the “Montgomery Missile” Anthony Perrego. After being involved in a hard heat race crash which severely damaged the #44 Superior Remodeling Teo the crew went to work and had the car repaired in time for the second consolation race. Finishing second in the consi put Perrego into the Minute Man 20 giving him another chance to make the main event. Perrego gave it his all but fell short ending his night’s effort…
Billy Pauch Jr was one caution flag away from not making it into the 2017 Freedom 76 race. Pauch, in the Danny’s Pizza Pizzaz #22 was a rocket on Friday night in practice only to be left scratching his head on Saturday night. Pauch Jr struggled in his heat race finishing seventh which put him into the MM 20 last chance race. With only the top five finishers qualifying into the Freedom 76 race things didn’t look good for the kid’s kid who was stuck running back in the ninth position as the laps were winding down in the 20 lap race. Then Pauch Jr received the break he was looking for when the caution flag came out with only a few laps remaining. On the ensuing restart Pauch Jr made a bold and aggressive move to vault into to the top five and into a qualifying spot. Pauch Jr would go on to finish third in the MM 20 putting him into the main event. Pauch Jr had worked his way from the 29th starting spot and almost into the top five when he was forced to retire from the race with overheating problems…
Ryan Godown had a Freedom 76 race he would like to forget aboard the Searock Fabrications #26. Godown spun early in the race right in front of the field as they plowed into him. After a trip to the pits Godown made his way back out on the track but was never a factor and ended up dropping out of the race later on. Looking at Godown’s car afterwards, it looked like the car had been through a demolition derby with heavy body damage on both sides of the car…
Stewart Friesen skipped a Super DIRTcar Series in Upstate New York to try and win the $30,000 first place prize. The Halmar Racing #44 was sporting a brand new Performance Engines by Billy the Kid 358 motor under the hood of the TEO Chassis. Friesen started the feature in the 23rd spot was on a mission early on and was up the sixth spot in only 21 laps only to bring out the caution a few laps later with what was determined to be a broken axle tube, ending his night…
Coming off a big victory the night before at the Delaware International Speedway four-time Freedom 76 winner Duane Howard had a ton of confidence going into the Saturday night. Howard’s night ended early in the feature race when the steering box broke on the Norm Hansell #357…
Pre-race favorite Ryan Watt was starting to come on strong midway through the 76 lap feature but elected to pull in after the fuel pump started to go bad ending his night…
Rick Laubach thought he had put the struggles his team had experienced most of the night behind him when the Doug Flurer No. 16 started to come on midway through the race. Laubach was definitely a car on the move when the fuel break came about on lap 45. With his confidence high Laubach thought he had something for the leaders going into the last 31 laps of the race. The confidence Laubach had quickly disappeared as right after the race resumed Laubach slowed to a stop with driveline issues ending his race…
Driving a second entry for the Zubi’s Racing Team, Jimmy Horton had an okay night. Horton easily qualified through his heat race and was running solidly in the top ten early on before being caught up in the wreck when Ryan Godown spun. Horton turned quickly to try and avoid Godown but the right rear tire caught Godown’s front end resulting in a flat tire for the Neshanic Station, N.J., driver. The team was able to make the change and get Horton back out where he finished the race in the fourteenth position…
As always, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dirtracefan25 for any questions or comments.