By KEN BRUCE
Jeff Strunk is no stranger to big money wins on the PA small-block circuit with a total of eight Freedom 76 wins including all three of the highest paying 76ers and four Coalcracker wins in his illustrious career. When a big money race is on the schedule in Pennsylvania, you can bet Jeff Strunk will be in the mix. The “Bechtelsville Bullet” just has a knack for being prepared when the money is on the line.
Friday night at Big Diamond in the running of the highest paying Prelude to the Coalcracker race ever, Strunk was again the man in victory lane taking the Dave Zubikowski owned Zubi’s Racing No. 88z to the $10,000 victory. Strunk, who started on the outside pole, was able to wrestle the lead away at the drop of the green from Matt Stangle and went on to lead every lap on his way to the big win. For Strunk it was his third win of the season at Big Diamond, and with the big $17,000 to win Coalcracker 72 coming up in just two weeks, it was a good way to get his Bicknell chassis, Morrison powered Modified tuned up for the extra distance race.
For Strunk the win on Friday was his second Prelude to the Coalcracker win in a row and he talked about the big win outside his trailer after the race.
“For many years, at least the last four or five we didn’t have a handle on this place,” said a happy Strunk. “Last year when I started to run the 15 car for Butch (Getz) we started to get a handle on it and we’ve been pretty good here since. To win this race two years in a row is pretty awesome and with it paying ten grand this year makes it even better.”
Starting on the pole or the front row is always a good thing but for some drivers, they would rather start a few rows back to see what lines the other drivers are running. Leading from the onset, while it is good, is also sometimes a disadvantage for the leader who cannot always see what is the fast way around.
“While that is always not the best thing, tonight it worked out well for me,” explained Strunk. “The way the track got wide tonight. I felt good where I was running and I tried to move around a little bit to see if it was better or worse and I always ended up back to where I was running. Tonight, that wasn’t a problem. I could hear Matt (Stangle) a little bit there at the end, but I never really felt super pressured so I just wanted to keep the car as straight as I could and keep the tires under us and it worked out good. I went to the bottom there at the end just knowing the place and where you needed to be towards the end of the race.”
Restarts are always the key to racing at any track and Big Diamond is no exception. Stangle gave it all he had on each restart, but the savvy veteran Strunk had what it took to hold off the young driver.
“Matt made it really tough on every restart,” said Strunk. “These young drivers like Matt go all out and push it as much as they can on the restarts like they should and it makes it tough for us old guys. I was able to do what I needed to do to hold him off. If I would have made one mistake, he would have been by us. I think if he would have been able to get to the outside of me in (turn) one I might have struggled a little bit because it took a couple of laps to get heat into the right front tire. I was a little tight the first two or three laps after each restart, but it worked out for us and I was able to roll the car through the turns and keep it in front.”
It was a lot of hard work for Strunk and his team to get where they are today and that has been documented before, but the team has shown speed most of the year at Big Diamond and if not for some bad luck and a couple of self-admitted driver miscues Strunk could easily have five or six wins this season.
“That is just the way the racing is here on the PA small-block circuit,” mentioned Strunk. “We didn’t have the speed we wanted early in the year but about a month into the season we found the speed we were looking for and that was huge. There was some little stuff we played with that we’ve found over the years with our experience with these Bicknell cars. We are having fun, and believe it or not, we are doing all of this without a shock dyno or spring smasher and all of that stuff so that’s pretty cool in itself. It’s not the way I want to do it, but we are building as we go here, and I can’t thank Zubi (car owner Dave Zubikowski) enough for rescuing me once again this year. He did it before in 2015 and again this year and I am so happy for him and for all of us. My guys all work so hard, we all have fulltime jobs, so this is like a rejuvenation for us. For us to win the money tonight is huge for this team and hopefully it bodes well when we are back here in two weeks for the Coalcracker.”
Matt Stangle returns to Big Diamond and gets a strong runner-up finish
It was a night for Matt Stangle that he will remember for sure but not in the racing sense. Stangle returned to Big Diamond with the family-owned No. 6 and was fast right from the start winning his heat and then drawing the pole for the 50-lap feature. Unfortunately for Stangle, Strunk joined him on the front row and took over right from the start. Stangle hung in there and held off a very strong running Timmy Buckwalter to finish a strong second.
“We definitely had a good car tonight,” stated Stangle. “Starting up front always helps, but we had some really good speed tonight. Unfortunately for us, Jeff (Strunk) was just a little bit better than we were. We were gaining on him at the end but I am not sure if it was us getting better or if he was starting to slow down a little bit, but we did start to run him down, but we didn’t have enough.”
Stangle talked about his battle with Buckwalter which went on for at least 25 laps.
“We had a good race with each other,” explained Stangle. “The one restart I tried to go high and get around Jeff and he went to the inside of me, so I figured I better get back down there to protect the inside. I finally started to pull away from him there a little bit, but he was always not too far behind me.”
Buckwalter continues late season surge with podium finish.
Probably the hottest driver at Big Diamond the past month has been Timmy Buckwalter. Buckwalter has been knocking off top fives each and every week and has rundown points leader Duane Howard and is now only nine points behind going into championship night next Friday.
Last Friday night, Buckwalter was on the move early in the race after starting in the sixth spot and was up to third as lap 21 was scored. Buckwalter hounded second-place running Stangle the remainder of the race but just couldn’t find his way by having to settle for third.
“I got up there quick but started to play with too much in the car there and got myself dialed out,” said a disappointed Buckwalter. “I finally got myself back into a rhythm and started to run him back down, but the race was over at that point. Too bad this wasn’t the seventy sixer because with the extra laps I might have been alright. Just hats off to my guys, that’s two big shows this week with top three finishes and that is good for us. We just need to get a little bit better. I think we have a package for the beginning of the race and the end of the race, we just need to be better in the middle and I think then we will have something for them.”
Buckwalter is a driver who always appreciates the opportunities he is given and this night was no exception. He’s also looking forward to the weeks ahead.
“Hats off to my guys and to Norm Saxton (team owner) for giving me what I need and allowing me to call all of the shots. We are having a helluva a year and let’s keep it going. We have a new car and motor ready to go, but I think we’ll just put the new motor in this car. This motor has almost 1500 laps on it, so I think it is time. I don’t know if next Friday’s the night, but I have to, I can’t run this one anymore. It’s a shame, but if we get some new power under the hood, it should help our deal with the big money races coming up.”
Surprise visit from Max McLaughlin who ends up with a fifth-place finish
A last-minute decision to race the Norm Hansell No. 357 paid dividends for Mad Max McLaughlin as the Mooresville, NC driver raced to an impressive fifth place finish at a track McLaughlin hasn’t run too many times.
“The track was really good for the feature, and I think we really had a chance to win,” said a happy McLaughlin standing outside the trailer after the race. “It’s hard to get up there and battle for the win when you start so far back here. So many times I was able to get a wheel alongside cars on the outside coming out of the turns, but you have to back-off or you will get run into the wall. If I would have been able to up get alongside of them a little further they would have known I was there. I might have been able to drive up to the front, but if they don’t know I am why would they back-off, I know I wouldn’t. We had a wicked good car tonight and I think if we would have started up front it might have been a different story.”
Big Diamond / Prelude Notes:
A season high 34 Modifieds signed in on Friday night for the Prelude to the Coalcracker. Heat winners were Jared Umbenhauer, Jeff Strunk, Alex Yankowski and Matt Stangle. The two consolation races were won by Ryan Krachun and Rick Laubach…
The Kids Kid Billy Pauch Jr., returned to action Friday night aboard a beautiful all-new Kid Racing No. 15 Bicknell chassis, Morgantini powered modified. Pauch looked strong all night long coming home with an eighth-place finish…
Former Prelude winner Ryan Godown was a surprise entrant on Friday night wheeling the Danny Sommeling Danny’s Pizza Pizzazz No. 51 driven lately by Matt Stangle. Godown started the feature in third and was in the top three early on and eventually finished in sixth. Talking to Godown after the race, he said the motor was stumbling somewhat with what he thought was some kind of a fuel issue. Godown thought if not for that he could have been in the mix for the win…
Speaking of the No. 51, rumors of Matt Stangle not being happy with them deciding to put Godown in the car on Friday night proved to be correct. Posted on the Matt Stangle Racing Facebook page this morning was a post stating that Matt will no longer be driving the No. 51 car and will be back in the family-owned No. 6 full-time…
Danny Bouc made his return to Big Diamond on Friday night. With Max McLaughlin driving the Norm Hansell No. 357, Bouc brought his own No. 32. Bouc struggled all night long and ended up pulling off midway through the feature…
It was nice to have the “Hook” Craig Whitmoyer back racing on Friday night. Whitmoyer qualified in a redraw spot in his heat and looked strong early on eventually dropping out…
It is so nice to listen to Crate 602 Sportsman Jonathan Swift in victory lane. Swift, who won his third race of the season on Friday night, is a really appreciative racer and his victory lane interviews are a joy to listen to as he really has fun racing. I wish more racers would have his mindset…
Next Friday night is “Championship Night” at Big Diamond and the race for the 2021 Insigner Performance Modified title is a real barnburner as Timmy Buckwalter has made a late season push to win his first ever modified title. Buckwalter is now only nine points behind Duane Howard which should make for an interesting night of racing next Friday, August 27th…
The race for the 2021 points titles in the three remaining division are pretty much a done deal. Steve Lyle leads the way in the Savage 61 Crate Sportsman with a 110-point lead over Danny Buccafusca. In the U.S.S. Achey Open Sportsman division it is Doug Hendricks with a 107-point lead over Brandon Edgar. Andrew Fayash III has wrapped up the Red White and Blue Autos Roadrunner title with over a 300-point lead over Alex Schoffstall…
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