By KEN BRUCE
The mighty big-blocks came to life on Saturday at the big 5/8’s mile Bridgeport Speedway nestled down in South Jersey and when it was all said and done, it was Stewart Friesen standing in Victory Lane after running down and passing the #126 of Jeff Strunk with only two laps remaining in a crowd pleasing duel.
The big win produced a few firsts the Sprakers, New York driver. It was Friesen’s first win of the 2017 as well as the first win for the newly named Halmar-Friesen Racing team. But possibly the biggest accomplishment of the day for the HFR team was that it was their first win in their new DKM chassis. In only its third race, the team was able to get to Victory Lane.
Friesen started off the weekend by setting a new track record in one of the two big-block practice sessions on Friday night thus garnering himself an automatic redraw spot for Saturday’s big race. The redraw on Saturday night, a revenge draw, which meant when each drew for his position he had to give it away to another driver. Heat winner, PJ Oliver had the honor of picking the worst possible redraw starting position, the 14th position which he quickly handed over to Friesen. Starting 14th was no issue to the full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver as he methodically worked his way towards the front and into the second position just before the halfway flags were displayed.
Once Friesen moved into second he started to slowly shrink the lead of his good buddy Jeff Strunk had built up and it appeared it would only be a matter of time before the battle for the lead would ensue. As the laps clicked away it looked like Strunk had managed to keep a safe distance between himself and Friesen and with 10 to go it was all Strunk. However, things can change quickly in a race and change they did as all of a sudden, the Glenn Hyneman #126 of Strunk started to develop issues under the hood. In a snap of a finger Friesen was right on the leader’s bumper.
I asked Friesen if he was holding back at all waiting to make his move. “Not at all, I knew Strunky was having a motor problem, but he was hooked up and had so much momentum in the corner I couldn’t slide up underneath him to complete the pass. He had us if it wasn’t for that caution for sure. Luckily I was able to get by him in turn one on the restart before he could get up to speed. It worked out for us.”
Even with his engine issues, Strunk seemed to have the line to keep Friesen at bay and held him off lap after lap as Friesen tried everything he could to get by. Friesen would get to the inside of Strunk each and every lap as they entered the turns but Strunk would always have the preferred line to hold him off as they exited the corners. Just as it appeared Strunk was going to be able to take the big win, the caution appeared as Ryan Watt suffered his second flat tire of the night just as the two leaders took the two to go flags. Friesen had the extra power necessary on the restart to charge under Strunk’s ailing car going into turn one and take the lead. Once Friesen was in front there was no stopping him as went on to take starter Ken Golden’s checkered flag and pick up the big win. He also got the $4400 that went along with it.
Talking to Friesen after the race, he was as you would expect, a very happy driver.
“Man, it’s always nice to win but to win this race is special to me. Doug (Hoffman) was close to my family and my uncle and it really means a lot to me to win this race. They did an excellent job with race track today. This track is typically an abrasive track but when you add clay to it, it’s always a challenge and even with the rain delay it was table top smooth. Keith (Hoffman) did a great job to get the track ready. The track slicked up a little bit but they gave us two grooves and we were able to get the job done.”
Friesen was very happy to get their first win in the new DKM chassis.
“This DKM chassis is really sensitive, but we’re starting to get ahold of it. This is the same car we ran down in Florida, but unfortunately with the rain we were only able to run it one night. So, it’s still a work in progress. The DKM guys really work hard on this car and you can see it’s starting to pay off. I am really happy for this Halmar Racing team, everyone has been working hard and it’s great to finally get that first win of the season.”
Disappointed Strunk hangs on for second:
Most drivers would be very happy to start off their season with a second-place finish, but not a driver of Jeff Strunk’s caliber. Strunk took the lead from pole sitter Sammy Martz on lap 13 and appeared to have the 44-lap feature in hand until about ten laps to go when engine issues started to develop on his Bicknell chassis #126. For Strunk, it must’ve seemed like déjà vu all over again from last season when on opening day he was leading and pulling away at Georgetown only to have a rear axle break with victory in site. The difference this year was that Strunk was still able bring the ailing car home for a runner-up finish.
Strunk did all he could to nurse the car to the victory and it appeared to the big crowd on hand he would be able to do just that holding off Friesen repeatedly lap after lap. A late race caution was the last thing the “Bechtelsville Bullet” was looking for as he had settled into a nice rhythm being able to hold off the hard charging Friesen each lap. But as a veteran driver like Strunk knows, things don’t always go your way and when the caution came out with two laps to go Strunk knew with the issues he was having it would be hard to hold off his good buddy Friesen. He was right as Strunk lost the lead on the restart going into turn one. Strunk was able to hold off Duane Howard to finish second but the driver couldn’t help think what he has to do to get a big block win which has eluded him for many years.
Even though he was disappointed with the ending, Strunk was trying to smile and be optimistic after the finish.
“We lost a cylinder with ten to go, it’s a real bummer. I think I still could’ve held him off if it wasn’t for the caution. It’s sucks but what can you do, I wasn’t sure if I should pull in or not but it seemed like it was still running good enough to be able to hold him off. I knew I was in trouble once the caution came out because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get up to speed as fast he could. I was surprised I was able to hold on for second to be honest. It was a good run for our team and it gives us something to work with going forward, we know now we have a good set-up for here so we just have to tweak on it a little bit. It’s gives us a lot of confidence coming back here.”
I asked Strunk about the battle he had with Friesen.
“It’s always fun to race with Stewie. He is just like a magician when he gets in these cars anymore. I thought with him starting back in 14th it would be hard for him to pass and get up front, but I guess it wasn’t as hard to pass as I thought. He just gets in these cars now and it’s like a stroll in the park for him. What he does on a weekly basis now in both the trucks and the Modifieds is unbelievable. You always hate to lose but If I had to get beat by someone, I’m glad it was him.”
Duane Howard finished a strong third
It was another strong race for Duane Howard and the Norm Hansell #357 team in 2017. The team has run three races so far this season and the Oley, Pa., driver has finishes of fourth (G/Town), sixth (B/Port 358’s) and a solid third place in yesterday’s “Doug Hoffman” Memorial big-block race at Bridgeport.
Although Howard is happy with the way the team has come out of the box so far this season, you know the veteran driver is not satisfied with not being able to close the deal and park it in Victory Lane yet.
“It was a good run for our team. Surprisingly the track didn’t change much after the heat and we just didn’t go tight enough, we were just a little too free in the feature. We had a little bit of a motor issue where it would seem to want to surge down the straightaways so we’ll have to see what was causing that and straighten it out. That last caution really hurt us. I thought I was gaining on them a little and maybe could sneak by while they were battling each other, but when the caution came out it was over. Overall it was a decent run, but not what we wanted. We’re good, not as good we would like to be but I am sure everyone thinks the same way. This #357 team works hard and we have a good balance in these race cars right now. These Bicknell cars are pretty good and we just have to do a better job fine tuning them.”
Enough cannot be said of the effort the staff and management of the speedway put in on Saturday to get the show in after a three-hour rain delay. Brian Ramey, Haley Ramey, Kolby Ramey, Dave Adams, Danny Serrano and Keith Hoffman all did a fantastic job to make the weekend special for the fans and racers.
Track owner Brian Ramey has assembled a great fan friendly staff that puts the fan first. The interactive activities the track puts on for the fans really go a long way to keeping the fans and especially, the kids involved. From the pit tours aboard the track bus to bringing the mighty Modifieds behind the stands before they come out for the feature are just a couple of the examples the track staff does to make an already good show a great show.
Special thanks especially to Keith Hoffman who has quietly become one of the best track preparers in the all of dirt track racing. Even after the rain delay, Hoffman had the track groomed to perfection for the night’s feature events. Even though I am sure Hoffman would like to have had the track a little drier and slicker, the day’s element prevented that from happening. Even with heavy fast surface driver after driver had nothing but praise for the smooth as glass track surface afterwards.
It looks like Dominick Buffalino will be calling Bridgeport Speedway his home for 2017. With new K & A Excavating, Inc sponsorship on the quarter panels, the deal will require to change his home track to Bridgeport Speedway from New Egypt Speedway. Buffalino is looking forward to battling with Bridgeport’s best on a weekly basis…
31 big-block Modifieds were on hand Saturday at Bridgeport. Heat wins went to PJ Oliver, Ryan Watt and Sammy Martz with Tommy Beamer winning the consi. Stewart Friesen and Jamie Mills, by virtue of the being fastest in Friday night’s two hot lap sessions, were automatically put into the redraw for Saturday’s big race…
Billy Pauch Jr. had a pair of fourth place finishes on both Friday (358 race) and Saturday. The new Danny’s Pizza Pizzazz, Bayshore Ford #51 team has looked strong right out of the box so far this season. The team had strong run opening day at Georgetown running in the top five until breaking with less than five to go. It won’t be long before this team visits Victory Lane…
Rick Laubach and Brett Kressley both suffered from engine issues in their respective heat races on Saturday ending their nights early. Billy Pauch Sr., whose car was smoking in his heat, still managed to finish second pulled out of the feature early on with engine issues as well…
If there was an award for passing the most cars on Saturday night it would have to go to the #14W of Watt. Watt’s new Bicknell chassis was a rocketship throughout the night. Watt started the night by winning his heat race by a long margin. In the feature event Watt was on the move early and was up to the third spot before suffering a flat RR tire. After quickly changing the tire and starting from the rear, Watt would pick up where he left off and started his charge to the front. Watt had just entered the top five once again when another RR tire would go down with two to go forcing him to the pits once again. Watt would come back out and finish eleventh on the night…
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