It was a strategy that has worked many times throughout Matt Hirschman’s career, but simply had not entirely gone in his favor on the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Tour during the 2015 season. Tire conservation and a maneuver at the right time would put a stop to that drought late in the 125 lap distance during the 27th Annual U.S. Open at Lancaster National Speedway (NY).
Hirschman found a hole and made a daring pass under Mike Leaty in turn four with less than 20 laps remaining to lead for the first time Sunday afternoon. He would go on to take his fourth win in the prestigious Western New York event, but it was a long time coming to get back to that achievement on a tour he has often dominated in the past.
“To be honest, we went several years where we were winning quite frequently that you would never think that you would go a season winless,” Hirschman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “The main thing is I really think late summer we got better and we were in position to win races and we still didn’t close the deal and win. I really had to step up my game and focus in. I was locked in on this race. There was a lot of thought and a lot of things that went into this; preparing the car and mentally preparing for this race.”
Hirschman’s closest challenger near the conclusion was the most recent RoC winner Andy Jankowiak. Jankowiak used an almost identical game plan as Hirschman, running near the rear after a bad draw in the heat race and then running mid-pack at best during the first half of the feature.
Hirschman took it to another level, backing off and running only car lengths ahead of early race leader T.J. Potrzebowski. Both drivers would begin to make their run after almost the entire field pitted shortly after halfway, but Hirschman would have an unexpected obstacle that would test him on a lap 85 caution.
Top five contender Daren Scherer spun between turns one and two in front of most of the field, including Hirschman. The Northampton, Pennsylvania driver had to come to a complete stop to avoid running into Scherer. Due to not maintaining his speed, Hirschman was ordered to the rear of the field for the restart.
“There were times we were saving to try and help the tires, and then there were times where we had to run just as hard as the leader,” Hirschman pointed out. “Then we had to run really hard and make up for all that lost ground. In the end we used up the tires on that last run.”
A minor setback did not stop Hirschman by any means.
“I was very determined; I didn’t give up on it,” Hirschman continued. “Made all the right moves, made them stick, and did them clean too. That was a nice way to win.”
Jankowiak finished the race in second, and looking back realized some things he may have done differently if given the opportunity again.
“I screwed up because I came out ahead of Leaty out of the pits and I wanted to save a little bit more so I kind of let him go,” Jankowiak explained. “I actually slapped the frontstretch wall trying to pass him, so we had a hard time getting back by him. One of the cars took us up and we got into the marbles badly. I thought I was going to hit the wall in two and Hirschman got by us there.
“Matt was good, but I don’t think he would have had enough to pass us if we were one-two. We’ve had a very good stretch here so I guess I can’t be too upset.”
Chuck Hossfeld rounded out the podium, but unlike Hirschman and Jankowiak he won his heat race and ran in the top five most of the day. The 2014 champion questioned the meaning behind their method to get to the front.
“Unfortunately, we were the only car, in my opinion, that raced all day,” Hossfeld commented. “If you watch Matt, he barely ran his heat race and ran but half of the feature. That’s just no fun. I know he won it and I know that’s the goal, but I’ll try to make my car better and be able to run longer.
“I compared it to deflategate, but this time it wasn’t with footballs. It was with real balls. These guys didn’t use their balls today and we did.”
The points took a major swing leading into the final race next Sunday at Chemung Speedrome (NY) due to another top competitor’s misfortune. Coming off a best career second-place finish in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway the day before, Patrick Emerling ran in the top five for most of the event.
Unfortunately, on the same caution that Hirschman was sent to the back, Emerling’s Modified suddenly came to a stop. The issue caused the driver to beat for most of the season to lose two laps and relegated him to a finish outside the top 10.
“It appears an alternator went, the battery died, the car shut off, got pushed in, and just couldn’t get the battery changed in time to get it back out there,” Emerling recapped. “We positioned ourselves perfectly, but just had circumstances like that happen.”
As a result of his second subpar finish in a row, Emerling falls to second in the standings. He indicated post-race that the team will most likely forego their outside shot at the championship and compete at the Stafford Motor Speedway (CT) Fall Final instead.
This gives Hirschman a comfortable lead heading into the finale, and while the unlikely can happen in the 65th Race of Champions 200 his closest competitors know who the favorite is and what they have to do to have any chance.
“If there was a sure bet anywhere it would be those guys,” Jankowiak noted. “They’re just smart and experienced so it will be tough. We’re just going to go there and run our race.”
“I’ve been racing for a long time, and the odds of a good car like Matt having an issue there isn’t probably going to happen and on top of that we need (Jankowiak) to have an issue,” Hossfeld added. “Bottom line is we have to win the race. If we do that, then we did the best we could.”
Hirschman is aware that anything can happen and will be focused on the battle before the war much like he did at Lancaster.
“That’s going to be a wild race,” Hirschman predicted. “Chemung typically is and that’s a lot of laps there. There’s a lot that is going to happen in that race. Hopefully at the end of the day we’re on top.”
Most important of all, Hirschman feels that they bring an unbelievable amount of momentum going in.
“It’s a real great feeling going into next week with a positive day here,” Hirschman said. “That’s always something really good to have on your side and get everybody on the team’s spirits up going into next week. I definitely was focused on winning here and made a great weekend for my family and all our crew.”
Part of the family celebration for the first time was son Matthew Christopher, who was born in January.
“He was already at Mahoning in April when he was only three months old when the season started and it took until now, but it was great to have him here in victory lane with me,” Hirschman said. “This whole weekend spending it with my family was really a lot of fun. It’s something you probably remember more than some of these other wins just because of having him a part of it for the first time.”
The odds are now in Hirschman’s favor next weekend to again be named the RoC champion, this time with his boy in his arms.
– By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Pennsylvania/Central New York Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
– Photo credit: Speed51.com
RoC Modified U.S. Open 125 Results
1 20 60 Matt Hirschman
2 24 73x Andy Jankowiak
3 11 22 Chuck Hossfeld
4 9 8 Bobby Holmes
5 3 34 Rusty Smith
6 14 59 Karl Hehr
7 7 9 Will Thomas
8 15 65 George Skora III
9 18 45 Kevin Timmerman
10 4 51 T.J. Potrzebowski
11 19 3 Daren Scherer
12 6 1L Mike Leaty
13 10 44 Rick Kluth
14 2 07 Patrick Emerling
15 21 24 David Rigan
16 22 64 Amy Catalano
17 13 95 Bryan Sherwood
18 24 11 Kirk Totten
19 26 48 Sam Fullone
20 5 4 John Wilber
21 12 21 Tony Hanbury
22 17 1 Chris Risdale
23 16 10 Daryl Lewis Jr.
24 25 27 Donny Hartzell
25 1 42 Nick Pecko
26 8 54 Tommy Catalano
27 27 99 Bill Mislin