Often times in short track racing, especially on the quarter-mile Mahoning Valley Speedway (PA), track position and luck play a major factor in how the events unfold. This was evidenced in Twin 50 Modified races, which presented multiple opportunities to turn around an evening that hadn’t gone so well or the potential for a perfect night to go sour quickly.
Saturday night’s features were the third and fourth of a six race Modified Gamblers Series, a unique format in which drivers receive a ‘card’ for their finishes. Don Wagner entered the evening with the best poker ‘hand’, an Ace for his win in the season opener back in July and a King for his second place finish in a 100 lap race held in May.
Wagner, a track regular who held the division points lead for much of the season, would have to fight to get to the front after hitting the wall in his heat race. He would climb to fourth in the first feature, getting one card closer to a hand with a possible straight, but would not challenge for the win in either feature.
On this night, with only “show up” points being awarded toward the championship, it was win or nothing for a number of racers. In the end, it was a couple drivers that do not compete at the Lehighton, Pennsylvania bullring weekly this year that were victorious.
The beautiful summer weather was the story of the day, providing for lots of grip on the track surface and as a result allowed for a second groove of racing. Teenager Kyle Strohl drew the pole following heat races, but it was Zane Zeiner who would come through and make his car stick on the outside line to pass another front runner Bobby Jones for the lead after halfway.
Despite the winning performance, Zeiner knew that a slight change needed to be made in order to repeat in the second feature and get that second Ace card.
“On the outside, the car on the restarts was just phenomenal,” Zeiner told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “It just hooked and went, and when I got the lead and went down to the groove at the bottom it got a little tight towards the end.”
Zeiner would have to come from further back in the second feature after an 11-car invert. He would be able to advance to fourth behind third-place finisher in the first race Eric Beers, but it was at a point after halfway in which the night would be derailed for both competitors.
Beers would get sent around and Zeiner was ordered to the rear of the field for initiating the contact. Neither driver would recover for a respectable finish in the second twin.
“We made a small adjustment for the second one, and the car felt better,” Zeiner commented. “I didn’t realize Eric was that free and I got into the back of him just a little bit. He couldn’t save it, and Eric’s really good at saving cars. When he loses it you can tell his tires are used up. It’s a shame because I would have liked to tussle for another win.”
Up front it was all former track regular Nevin George, who struggled to an 11th-place finish in the first race, but led flag-to-flag for his first victory of 2015.
“This is actually our fourth time out for the season, and all four times I definitely felt like we had a winning car,” George said. “Different circumstances kept us from getting there. The first 50 we ended up pulling 11th and sometimes at this little round track if the lanes don’t open up sometimes you move the wrong way. Ended up lucking out with the redraw and getting the pole, and the car showed the potential that it had.”
George has challenged for championships before, but with scaling back this season he only has one goal when making an appearance at the larger shows.
“That’s what we are here for; the money and the trophies,” George explained. “I decided at the end of last year to prioritize my kids with Quarter Midgets and that’s what we are doing. We’ve got a 50 plus race schedule with them, and whenever they have these Gamblers Series I choose to come here.”
Despite now holding an Ace, George is unsure whether he will be back for the next race in the series on October 3, the Bob ‘Heavy’ Scherer Memorial 100.
“I do have a conflict on the next Gamblers Series ,” George mentioned. “The kids have a USAC regional race in Delaware so I don’t know what I’m going to do with that yet, but we’ll decide.”
Austin Kochenash challenged for the lead in the second 50, but had to settle for second. Matt Hirschman crept up to third in the final finishing order.
Kochenash had the best combined night of any competitors and with his finishes is working on a straight in the Gamblers Series holding a King, Jack, and 10. As strong as the car and the outside line were, the track veteran, who has still yet to turn 20 years old, still came up short.
“The difference was with (George) starting up there he was able to ride and conserve his tires where I started seventh and really had to work my tires over and they got overheated,” Kochenash explained. “The cautions helped and I was able to hang with him, but I just couldn’t complete the pass on the outside. The first feature was tough, starting 15th and getting up to fifth. All in all, it was a good night.”
As far as the Gamblers Series goes, Todd Baer currently has the best hand with a pair of 9s, which equals two sixth place finishes. Kevin Rex Jr. holds a pair of 6s and Eric Kocher a pair of 5s. Altogether, 10 drivers remain eligible for the $6,000 in additional prize money.
It should all make for some interesting competition, mind games, and perhaps some bluffing during the final two mini-series events in October.
– By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Pennsylvania/Central New York Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
– Photo credit: Speed51.com