Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – With Mother Nature raining on everyone’s parade Saturday at Lebanon Valley, I took this as a sign that it was time to review some of what has transpired at the high banks in 2019.
Now, there’s no scientific background behind these observations but hopefully it’s a good representation of where we sit at the midway point of this racing year. I’ll be breaking it up by division over the next few days, so let’s kick it off with the weekly headline division at the track, the Big Block Modifieds.
With Brett Hearn deciding to make Orange County his home in 2019, that meant there’d be a new champion for the first time in seven years. The big question that everyone has been wondering is who will step up and prove they deserved the title.
Well, if you look at the top of the point standings as we enter the month of July, you’ll find five drivers who are pleading their case. Kenny Tremont, Valley newcomer Peter Britten, Andy Bachetti, Keith Flach and LJ Lombardo have all visited victory lane this season and are currently separated by just 37 points. In fact, the top three, Tremont, Britten and Bachetti, are within 14 markers.
Tremont, the 13-time champ, is the only driver to win on multiple occasions this season. He’s grabbed the checkered flag three times, but Bachetti have been the most consistent. The man known as the “Wild Child” has seven top five finishes this season and, until last week’s 19th place finish, hadn’t finished out of the top 10.
Even with that consistency, Bachetti’s in a dogfight for the title. Keep this in mind. All three of the current top point getters have held the point lead at one time or another this season, and as close as they are, I’m sure things will shuffle more and more as the season winds down.
One of the biggest surprises at the Valley this season may be the emergence of Peter Britten. Becoming a regular on the high banks for the first time in his career, the man affectionately nicknamed “Batman” has no finish worse than 11th this season (four top 5’s, eight top 10’s) and picked up his first career Lebanon Valley win on May 18th.
While Britten is the most notable newcomer in 2019, former Albany-Saratoga Speedway Modified Champion Marc Johnson is another. Johnson and the Scott Hamlin-owned team are still working to get their footing in 2019 but it’ll only be a matter of time before they hit the right set-up.
While many thought the pairing would be contenders right out of the gate, Johnson has been realistic, knowing it takes time to gel. Learning his team, a new chassis manufacturer, a new track and sorting out his car’s braking packages have been some of the challenges Johnson has had to endure. However, he’s still only 39 points outside the top 10 as the month of July rolls around.
Marc is a good racer and will visit victory lane sooner than later. While one Johnson is learning the Valley ropes, another has been trying to improve on his 2018 season…that being RJ, Ronnie Johnson. Johnson is a driver who many thought would be contending for the point title in 2019 based on how he ran last season.
While he currently sits eighth in points, his best finish this season was a third in the second race of the season. He has however, had four finishes outside the top 10. Ronnie and his team have been working extremely hard to produce quality finishes while trying to get back to victory lane since returning as a regular last year. Unfortunately, he’s yet to do so.
Look to see the 2RJ get back on track as the summer months roll around as he chases his first win on the high banks since August of 2000.
One driver who seems to always be “there” is “Steady Eddie,” Eddie Marshall. The Ridgefield, CT native has been a very strong campaigner all season in his #98 Teo Pro Car, grabbing a pair of second place finishes while bringing home two other top five finishes.
Marshall currently sits sixth in points, but is a full race behind leader Kenny Tremont (60 points). If he wants to make a run at his first career track championship, the veteran has some ground to make up.
While he’s not in the top 10 in points, one pleasant surprise this season for me has to be John Ruchel, who currently sits 16th. Ruchel is someone I use to race against in the Sportsman division and is one of the nicer guys in the pit area…very happy-go-lucky and easy-going.
John has quietly put together a decent season with a best finish of fourth back on May 18th.
Probably the biggest story this season at the Valley has been the parity in the Big Block division. To date, we have eight different winners (Tremont, Britten, Bachetti, Flach, Lombardo, JR Heffner, Steve Hough and Paul Gilardi) in 2019 and that equals the total from all of last season.
While the top five drivers have all graced victory lane, other notables such as Marshall, Kyle Sheldon, RJ, Kyle Armstrong and Brian Berger have been close but have yet to seal the deal.
As good as many of the non-winners have been running this season, I would venture a guess to say that we’ll have at least three more winners in 2019.
This season has been one of change at Lebanon Valley. Ironically, even with change, a lot has stayed the same. One thing that we know, however, is that we’re in for one of the best point fights we’ve seen since the tie between Mark Flach and JR Heffner in 2008.
Who will it be? You’ll have to buy a ticket and see for yourself. It’s going to be one hell of a ride!
Editor’s Note: Up Next, The 358-Modified Division…