Erick Rudolph has led flag-to-flag in past Indoor Auto Racing Championship feature competition on more than one occasion, but Saturday night in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall was perhaps his toughest challenge yet. At the start-finish line the margin was scored as only 0.003 seconds over Zane Zeiner when the checkered flag flew.
As is the case during many years in the annual Gambler’s Classic 40-lap TQ Midget event, getting in position to lead the field to green is the key advantage. Rudolph did just that, passing Tim Buckwalter for the top spot in the brief five-lap TQ Dash that set the order for the starters near the front.
“I was very fortunate to be able to make a couple key moves in the Dash to get the pole position,” the now three-time Gambler’s Classic winner told Speed51.com. “The first half of the race I think I had the race under control. Every green flag I jumped out and had minimal pressure and then the last half of the race I had my hands full with a number of different guys behind me.”
The Ransomville, New York driver had to contend with Zeiner and Matt Janisch on multiple restarts in the closing laps.
“No one is here for second,” Rudolph commented. “Everyone wants to win, but I was able to make a few driving-style adjustments and rethink things over in my head under the cautions. You have so many cautions that you can almost get yourself over worked up about things, but you just have to keep a cool head and go out there and run your race.”
Zeiner and Janisch swapped second spot on a couple double-file restarts, but it was the Bath, Pennsylvania Modified ace who had the last shot at Rudolph.
“It was so close to call, but we tried everything we could,” second place finisher Zeiner concluded. “I drove him clean and then that last lap, just enough to move him up out of the groove and gave it a shot at the line.”
Janisch hit the setup for the feature with the newly formed team for which he was driving. Much like Zeiner, the 2016 ATQMRA champion was able to reach the back of Rudolph’s machine. Nevertheless, he was not able to make an official bid for the lead and had to settle for third in the end.
“I was just as fast as (Rudolph) was and he wouldn’t move up off the bottom out of the corner,” Janisch explained. “Even though he was a little loose he never got out of shape enough where I could get under him. He’s won these races for a reason.
“For it to be only the second time out in this car and a new crew working well together, I’m just happy, exhausted, the whole nine yards.”
The battle within the battle was for the 2016-2017 Indoor Auto Racing Championship between contenders Rudolph and Ryan Flores. After sweeping Allentown weekend, Flores entered with a comfortable lead, but the night in New Jersey did not go anywhere near planned.
After starting 10th, the tire changer in the NASCAR ranks throughout a majority of the months advanced a few positions before getting swept up in an altercation that took former Gambler’s Classic winner Ted Christopher out of competition. A second visit to the back after contact resulted in only a 10th-place result, but it was good enough for the now North Carolina resident to win the title.
“Just happy to bring this home and wrap it up for everybody in Jersey, everybody here on the shore, and everybody that has helped out,” Flores, originally from the area’s short track ranks, mentioned. “It’s overwhelming the support we get.”
While Flores brought the big check and hardware south before getting back to his full-time profession, Rudolph will be running approximately 80 more races throughout the 2017 season, touring the northeast in a Dirt Modified and racing at a couple weekly facilities.
“We have a lot to look forward to this year,” Rudolph, who plans to compete at Ransomville and Canandaigua in his home state as well as about 20 times in his own car, said. “Me and (car owner) Randy Chrysler are going to venture down to Florida here in I guess about a half a month already.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/MoJo Photos
15th Annual Gambler’s Classic Results
1) Erick Rudolph
2) Zane Zeiner
3) Matt Janisch
4) Jimmy Blewett
5) Mike Lichty
6) Scott Kreutter
7) Jonathan Reid
8) Andrew Nye
9) Brandon Azzalina
10) Ryan Flores
11) Ryan Preece
12) Rob Neely
13) Michael Maresca
14) Justin Bonsignore
15) Mike Iles
16) Tim Buckwalter
17) Mike Tidaback
18) Andy Jankowiak
19) Anthony Sesely
20) Ted Christopher
21) Ronald Mullen
22) Timmy Catalano
23) Brett Michalski
24) Earl Paules
25) Ryan Tidman
26) Andrew Krause