By MIKE MALLETT
No one likes to finish second. There are always questions and what ifs, but sometimes you have to look at the positives after a heartbreaking night.
Jack Lehner spoke with the media on Saturday night after coming up a quarter-mile short in securing what would have arguably been the biggest win of his career and he did so with obvious disappointment and a smile. It wasn’t the result he wanted or deserved. For the second time this week Mat Williamson was able to steal a win on the last lap.
A split-second decision was all it took to open the door for Williamson to slide by to earn his second win of the week in dramatic fashion. The 50-lap affair at Volusia Speedway Park in the Super DIRTcar Series finale of the DIRTcar Nationals came down to the final turn and things just didn’t work out for Lehner.
He didn’t get the win, but Lehner has no reason to hang his head. This one will sting, no doubt, but his time will come. He had a great week in Florida scoring three top 10 finishes including his second on the final night. There is always a bright side. He was competitive and in the hunt all week long. Not bad for a 24-year-old racing against the best Modified drivers from the Northeast.
“I would classify it as a good week,” said Lehner. “We were strong out of the box with a seventh the first night and we finished sixth the next night to go along with almost winning tonight. You can’t complain about that. We’re consistent and right there with the best of them. All week I felt like we were one little thing away from really being able to compete. The first few nights I didn’t think we really had a car to win, but we were close. Tonight, I felt like I had a car to win and that is so encouraging. We worked on it and got a little better.
“We’ve been working really hard on the shock stuff with Joe Matthews and Fox and all those guys. They got a lot of really cool stuff going on. Big shout out to Fox Shocks as a brand for helping me out. That’s encouraging going into the year for sure.”
On the final lap Lehner was forced to make a decision in slower traffic. Does he follow the slower car on the bottom and leave the middle open or does he leave his preferred line on the bottom to go to the middle to try and make the pass? He went where he felt he had the best chance to win. That was the line that got him to the lead. He chose the bottom.
“It was a really fine line running through the middle,” said Lehner. “I felt really good, excellent on the bottom. All week I kind of struggled in the feature of being tight. We did a few things for tonight to try to be able to rotate a little better. I could rotate really well and I think that’s why I was really good right on the wall. I was a little bit free when I had to get off the wall. A couple of times I went through the middle. There was just a very fine line between catching the banking and catching the brown spots. If you did all that right, it was fast, but if you missed it by a whisker it was really slow.
“That kind of played into my decision on the last lap there. I got around CG (Morey) and I see Jimmy’s (Phelps) the next car. Most of the time Jimmy’s really fast. I had to make the decision either tuck in behind Jimmy or to try to roll the middle to get around him. I didn’t want to roll the middle, miss it, and get beat by Mat. I also didn’t want to get stuck behind the lapped car and let him roll around me, which is what happened. You got a split second to pick one or the other and I guess picked the wrong one.”
It didn’t pan out on this night, but the runner-up finish is indicative of how far the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., driver has come. Three years ago, Lehner was battling to make his way into the top 15 and hoping to score a top 10. Now, those types of finishes are expected and, at times, disappointing. He’s wanting more. He’s on the cusp. The progress is evident and there is definitely more to come. The hard work and nights of battling for a good finish are starting to pay dividends.
“Three years ago, if I ran second like I did tonight I would have been ecstatic,” said Lehner. “It is cool to see the progression and it’s not by accident. I worked my ass off; my guys worked their asses off every single day in the shop. We’re working on this thing. Whether we’re working on the cars or working on stuff for customers to try to make money to go race, we’re doing something every single day. We love it. We’ve worked hard at it. It’s nice to see that the progression is continuing. If we were working as hard as we are and still running 15th it’d be like, what are we doing here? It’s definitely encouraging.”
With successful Florida trip under his belt, Lehner’s full attention will be in the shop in the coming weeks as the team prepares for the rough and tumble regular season in the Northeast. He’ll compete weekly at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in his own car and he returns to Fonda Speedway aboard the Nelson family No. 85 while returning to the Super DIRTcar Series with his Kevlar powered Bicknell. He’ll do so with a positive start to the season.
“Success in Florida is huge because, at least to me, all winter we’re working on things,” he said. “We look at what we can take away from the previous season and the new stuff that’s coming out. We’re working on trying to put together a package for the upcoming year. You have all sorts of crazy ideas when you have time to think in the shop. To be able to bring that stuff down here and try it out and to have success with it, it’s definitely encouraging. It’s encouraging going into the year because it means that we must be doing something right. You know, if we came down here and struggled really bad it’d be time to go back to the drawing board. At least we’re not going to go home totally scratching our heads. Hopefully the speed that we had here translates into the rest of the year.”
Lehner should be proud of what he accomplished this week. Progress is evident. The pain of this one will subside in time. He has no reason to hang his head. His time is coming and everything indicates it will come sooner rather than later.