WEST LEBANON, NY - After some weekone engine heartbreak, LJ Lombardo was able to rebound Saturday night at the Lebanon Valley Speedway with a wire-to-wire Modified victory,
but it was anything but easy.
First, the Danbury, CT driver had to dispose of wily veteran Denny Soltis who started on the pole position of the 25-car starting field and did just that as the field came down to complete lap one. From there, Lombardo had his #35 set on kill, trying to get out and hide and hopefully collect his second victory of his career on the highbanks.
“Oh man, that was nerve-racking the whole time,” LJ said. “I cannot believe this just happened.”
Two weeks ago, on opening night, Lombardo had engine issues after his heat race with the team’s brand new Billy the Kid powerplant. That necessitated taking the engine back to the builder for some TLC. Unfortunately, it wasn’t completed in time, but as luck would have it,
Billy the Kid has a plan B.
“We had a very unfortunate issue two weeks ago and our new engine broke,” he said. Billy and everyone there are the best there is. They handed us their house motor to use. They call it the ‘House Rat.’ The‘House Rat’ went out and scored and isn’t lacking any horsepower at
Once Lombardo got out in front, he was able to put some distance between himself and the rest of the field. Keith Flach had worked his way into second place and was trying to chase down the leader, but never got close enough to make a challenge.”
“I knew on the original start, it was going to be tough and getting by Denny (Soltis) when he was on the top would be difficult,” Lombardo said. “Getting by anyone when they are rolling around on the top isn’t easy but we were able to and just tried to go. I will say that Keith
(Flach) ran me clean on that one restart. He had me going into turn one but we kept the lead.”
From lap one, there was no way for LJ to know what type of lead he had on the rest of the field, so the driver of the Paul Wehnau Snap-On Tools, Land Hoe Maintenance machine was on the gas every lap, running the very high side to perfection.
“If you don’t have a good car behind you, you’re not going anywhere and these guys (his crew) deserve this more than the world,” he said. “They gave me an amazing car tonight and I can’t thank them all enough. I’m real big on prayer and we all got in the trailer and prayed just like we did the last time we won here and our prayers were definitely answered tonight.”
Second place on the night was Chatham, NY’s Rob Pitcher. Rob started ninth on the field and spent most of the feature in the top five. When he got to third, he glued himself to the back bumper of the 11A of Kyle Armstrong, and was able to make the pass for the runner-up
position with just a few circuits left.
“We finally caught the right chance to get by Kyle on the bottom coming off turn four,” Pitcher said. “It was a good race between the two of us and hopefully this will help us to keep the momentum going.”
Two weeks into the news season and Pitcher already has two solid top 10 finishes. This is a great start for the Dinosaw #17 team as they hope to improve on a 2017 season that was a struggle at times.
“This game is all about momentum and we want to keep things rolling,” he said. “We struggled in our heat on opening night and got to eighth after the feature. Tonight we started ninth and got to second so I’m pretty happy with that.”
Keith Flach looked like he had a car that could contend early with Lombardo. However, a mid-race restart threw a big monkey wrench into his plans for the win. He went from second to fifth on that restart and fought his way back to third at the finish.
“I got too good of a jump off turn four and couldn’t see him to see when he was coming,” Flach said. “I lifted a little so I wouldn’t jump the start as we got to the flag stand. I wanted to make sure he was the leader at the line and apparently I lifted too much.”
Even with the restart issue, Flach was happy with his #43 Bicknell machine.
“The car wasn’t bad tonight,” he said. “We were pretty tight early but it came around to us at the end of the race so we can build on this.”
For fourth place Armstrong, after the tumultuous season of a year ago, a strong finish this early in the season is a big shot in the arm for this family-owned team.
“This was a great run for our team,” Armstrong said. “Our car was good but it just kept getting looser and looser the longer runs we had. It was really good for six to eight laps and then would fall off but I am very, very happy with how it went tonight.”
Kenny Tremont finished fifth right ahead of opening night winner and defending champion Brett Hearn.
In the 358-Modified main, it was another driver, Andy Bachetti, who led from start-to-finish as he took the Jim Winchell-owned #17 to victory lane in the season opening event for the division.
Bachetti used the luck of the draw to get the pole in the first heat race of the night, which he won handily, and with a heads-up start, had the pole in the feature event and never looked back.
“Jimmy and his whole gang put this car together and it’s a pretty good hot rod right now,” Bachetti said. “We’ll now see what we can do from the back with this thing but I can’t say enough about his crew and my guys. Everything is really gelling for us right now.”
For the first time in a number of years, Bachetti will be running the Small Block Modifieds regularly at the Valley. Putting the deal together with Winchell over the off-season has allowed the Massachusetts driver to run both classes each week and not sacrifice anything for his Big Block effort.
“This could be a lot of fun this year,” he said. “My hats off to this group, though. Without Jimmy and his gang I wouldn’t be driving this Small Block, so I’m really happy for that.”
Second place finisher in the event, Brett Haas, was all smiles after the feature was complete. The Haas team has debuted brand new Bicknell car after years behind the wheel of Teo Pro Cars. The change in manufacturers paid dividends Saturday with the runner-up finish for
the second-generation driver.
“I’m extremely happy with a second place finish to start the year,”Haas said. “This is definitely a confidence booster for us with this new Bicknell this year and so far I have absolutely no complaints about it.”
With the addition of weekly drivers like Bachetti, Haas knows the competition will be tough if he hopes to get his first victory since 2014.
“This is actually going to be a really tough class this year with the caliber of drivers we have running it full-time,” he said. “Congratulations to Andy. I’m glad he’s in the class…granted it was a tough class in years past, but it’s going to be even that much tougher with Andy in it.”
No matter what, though, Haas is happy to say the least.
“My guys have put in a lot of time and effort to bring our program to where it is,” he said. “We’ve got some amazing marketing partners behind us this year, so to get a podium finish in the first race of the year, I’m happy and hope we can carry this momentum through the
Third place finisher Jason Herrington was also very happy with his opening night run for 2018. The “Flyin’ Farmer” is looking for big things this season. Saturday night, on the slippery race track, he was ecstatic to come away with third.
“Man that track was slick, but I’m so glad we were able to have a good finish like we did tonight,” he said. “Kenny (Tremont) showed me a nose a couple times and I was like, oh no, and it made me get back up on the wheel to make sure I hit my marks. As slick as it was tonight, I missed my marks a few times but just made sure I got back into my rhythm. I can’t be happier right now with how tonight finished up for us.”
Tremont came home fourth and Frank Harper brought the Paul Wehnau Snap-On #25 home fifth so it was a good night for the tool man.
Rob Maxon was the class of the field in the Sportsman main event, taking the lead on lap six from pole sitter Chris Lynch and never looked back as he took home his first win of the new season.
The Dane’s Auto Parts #96 team brought their Lebanon Valley-specific car Saturday for its maiden voyage, and to say it worked well would be an understatement.
“We brought our tour car here opening night and it just didn’t go,”Maxon said. “We’ve been trying to get this one together. It’s the piece we’ve designated to just run here this year and it just handles really well here so to show how fast it is and get the win, we’re excited.”
After starting in the eighth spot, Maxon knew he had to get to the front quickly while at the same time not using up his equipment to get there.
“I was trying to bide my time but at the same time I knew I had to get going,” he said. “I knew there were other people coming so if I wanted to get to the lead I had to go. I knew we had a car that could win and I’m glad we were able to get it done.”
Peter Carlotto came home second followed by early race leader Chris Lynch in third. Cody Ochs had a good run to finish fourth and opening night winner Chris Curtis rounded out the top five.
It was a homecoming, of sorts, in the Pro Stock feature as Canaan, CT’s Jason Casey took home