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The Freedom 76er Story From Grandview; Stunk Outlasts VonDohren In Epic Battle For 6th Victory

Rick Sweeten Photo

The battle for supremacy in the 46th Annual Freedom 76er at Grandview Speedway Saturday night, might just be talked about for ages as one of the better ones in recent memory. What makes it more special, was that it as waged between two champions that have been waging classic battles for years like two heavyweight champions.  Jeff Strunk and Craig VonDohren altogether owned nine of the last 15 championships in the $25,000 to win end of summer classic, and when all was said and done, Strunk found himself holding the trophy for the sixth time in his career.

“What an epic battle,” Strunk said in victory lane. “I mean he’s as good as they come, he’s as tough as nails and there’s no two ways about that. Hats off to him and his team, they had a great year. I’m just glad we could get here tonight, what a race.”

Rick Sweeten Photo

He may have won from the poll, but it was a backyard brawl all the way and a race in which he would give up the lead to a hard charging Ryan Watt early on, but found a way to get it back and then hold on to the lead with VonDohren breathing down his neck for the entire second half of the race.

Strunk and Ray Swinehart brought the 32 car field to the green flag and quickly set out to work, putting the field behind him with a top side assault as Watt and company looked for a way to keep pace without using up their cars in the process. With six laps in the books, perennial favorite and former champion Duane Howard who had barely made it into the field and was the final starter on the grid, slowed to bring out the first caution flag. Howard would return to action and actually managed to make his way into the top ten during the latter stages, falling back to an 11th place finish at the end of the night.

Rick Sweeten Photo

When action resumed, Strunk was still in command as Billy Pauch , Von Dohren and Rick Laubauch began moving forward from their mid to back starting positions, giving all indications that a logjam of legends would occupy the top five positions.  A legend in the making currently, Watt, stood the best chance to break up that scenario. And for a brief period, he appeared as if he might possibly leave the current legends in his wake.   Following a restart on lap 20 for Pauch who damaged the front end of his car, Watt powered around Strunk on the top side with authority and began to pull away while behind him, VonDohren moved around Swinehart to take the third spot on lap 26.

Watt encountered his first set of heavy lapped traffic on lap 30 and had a bit of a difficulty time getting around the lapped car of Dominic Buffalino when Tyler Dippel slowed in front of them to bring out the yellow flag on lap 33. Meanwhile, Laubach was methodically moving forward, splitting cars down the back stretch like it was rush hour traffic to move himself just beyond the top five at the time of the caution. And Doug Manmiller had moved into the fourth spot.

On the subsequent restart, Watt’s command on the top of the speedway was challenged by Strunk who found the bottom more to his liking as the two went door handle to door handle for a brief period and on lap 36, Strunk finished the pass on Watt to reclaim the lead before a fuel stop on lap 37.  Restarts played a major role in Strunk’s evening, but he kept it simple and tried not to be too smart for his own good.

Rick Sweeten Photo

“It stinks being the leader, you don’t know what’s getting fast or what is fast,” Strunk said.” I just kept trying to hit my marks and not do anything dumb behind the lapped cars.  I stuck to my guns on the restarts, I was going to stick to the bottom no matter what. Ryan set a torrid pace there after he got me, and I didn’t know whether to go hard or keep my pace there.”

When action got back underway again, Strunk took command once again while his closest challenger went backwards on the key restart as Watt found himself in the fourth position all of the sudden, while behind Strunk, Manmiller and Von Dohren traded spots having both made their way around Watt who was able to stabilize the damage and settled in line behind the leaders.

Strunk’s next challenger came in the form of VonDohren following his pass of Manmiller on lap 44. And the challenge brought many of the fans in attendance either to their feet, or making gestures as the Oley, PA driver began a furious hunt of Strunk. Both drivers stuck to their lines with Strunk using the bottom and VonDohren keeping office at the top. Strunk kept the advantage through several restarts, and during green flag runs knew that VonDohren was there as the two pulled neck and neck with the laps winding down.

But Strunk never changed, never faltered, and never let the fact that Von Dohren was all over him disturb his focus, Strunk remained consistent, hitting his marks with amazing consistency.  By lap 63, Laubach was all over VonDohren for the second spot which allowed Strunk to put precious car lengths between himself and the rest of the field and with no more cautions the rest of the way, and only a slight amount of lapped traffic to deal with, Strunk found himself champion once again as another chapter of their storied rivalry went into the books.

Rick Sweeten Photo

I can’t thank my crew enough, these guys stuck by me all year,” Strunk remarked.  “I can’t say enough about them, they’re why we’re here.”

At the end of the night, VonDohren took heart in a job well done, though losing to any rival can be a tough thing to swallow.

“We were good,” VonDohren said. “We kind of got held up a little bit longer in fourth and fifth a little longer than we wanted to, we wanted to get to those guys before the track went away, but we’ll take it, second place money is pretty good here, but a win tastes a lot better.”

Laubach was able to move from his 20th starting spot, to a podium finish despite having an ill handling car at the end.

“We’re happy with it, a top three is good here especially with the guys in front of us,” Laubach said. “Congrats to Jeff, it was good for him to get that win. The car was pretty got, but it got a little tighter as the race went on. It’s a problem I’ve been having all year and I haven’t rectified it yet, but we’ll be back. It’s just really fun here, it’s fun racing with these guys, I wish all the races here were that long.”

46 Annual Freedom 76er

Top 10 (Starting positions in parenthesis)

1. Jeff Strunk  (1)
2. Craig VonDohren (12)
3. Rick Laubach (20)
4. Doug Manmiller (8)
5. Ryan Watt (3)
6. Ray Swinehart (2)
7. Brian Krummel (4)
8. Jared Umbenhauer (22)
9. Kyle Weiss (9)
10. Bobby Varin (25)

$1,000 To Win Cash Dash (Heat Winners and Guaranteed Starters)

Top 5:

1. Rick Laubach
2. Craig VonDohran
3. Mike Gular
4. Bobby Varin
5. Jared Umbenhauer

Minuteman 20 Consolation Race (Top 5 to the Freedom 76er)

Top 5:

1. Kyle Borror
2. Dominic Buffalino
3. Ryan Godown
4. Kevin Hirthler
5. Duane Howard

Heat Winners:

Heat 1: Danny Bouc
Heat 2: Jared Umbenhauer
Heat 3: Bobby Varin
Heat 4: Rick Laubach
Heat 5: David Van Horn

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