Call it Mahoning Valley Speedway’s version of “The Amazing Race.” Amazing in the fact that for the first time in over two seasons track kingpin John Bennett was passed for the lead in a Modified feature.
In a battle of track champions, Slatington’s Chip Santee passed Bennett three laps from the finish and bested the reigning champ by inches at the finish.
Santee, the pole sitter, bolted out to the early lead in the 35-lap race with third starting Bennett right on his tail. It didn’t take long before the pair began an aggressive two-wide battle with Santee running low and Bennett hooked up on the topside. Running just as close was Bill Teel.
After a lap five restart, Bennett was able to use that high groove to power his way to the lead and just as the case has been every other time he took the top spot, it looked like it would be a race for second.
Santee and Teel ran side-by-side taking turns at running at being runner-up while Bennett maintained a car length advantage over them.
On lap 18, Santee got free from Teel and moved in on Bennett. He then pulled to the inside of the leader and once again some outstanding two-by-two action unfolded.
Finally gaining a burst of momentum, Santee was able to lunge ahead of Bennett and regain the lead as lap 21 was being completed.
This race was far from over, though, as Bennett stayed right alongside Santee. Despite some late race cautions that would have given Bennett a shot at overhauling on a restart, Santee was able to hold steady. This included a last lap attempt by Bennett who came within inches at the finish of passing Santee.
“At the beginning when I was a leading the car developed a little push and John (Bennett) was better on the restarts. I was getting tighter but it was actually making the car better,” said Santee who copped his 24th career win.
“To be able to pass John and then go on to win, that’s a great accomplishment here at Mahoning. He’s been the man to beat, he’s a tough competitor and he’ll be that way all year long. I have to thank my crew because they’re the heart and soul of this team and I couldn’t have done this without all their help.”
Second wasn’t a total loss for Bennett as he assumed the points lead.
Teel held on for third with James Pritcard, Jr., and Rick Reichenbach completing the top five. Santee and New Jersey invader Kieth Mullineaux won heat races.
Taking advantage of his pole starting spot, up and coming Austin Kochenash of Danielsville scored the win in the Late Model main.
Kochenash, making his first Mahoning start of the year, jumped out to the opening lap lead and did have some close challenging coming from Shawn Sitarchyk but in the waning laps the 14-year old honors student at Northampton High School, was able to drive away to a two car length win.
“I knew starting from the pole we had to get out to a good start and for how well the car was working during practice and the heat I felt confident,” said Kochenash who is the grandson of 1972 Mahoning Modified champion Roger Heffelfinger, Sr.
“All the hard work we’ve been putting into the car paid off tonight. During the race I could feel someone getting close a few times but I just protected the bottom line and if anyone was going to pass me they’d have to do it from the outside. This is a great boost to get a win this early in the season.”
Sitarchyk, in just his second start in a Late Model, took a very respectable second while opening night winner and current point leader Paul Koehler, Jr., was third.
Kochenash and Frankie Althouse won heat events.
In Street Stock action outside front row starter Brian Labar of Lehighton outgunned Kristy Morone Arthofer for the opening lap lead and from there the veteran racer was able to remain in front all 25 laps as well as hold back the relentless pressure mounted on him by defending class champ Randy Ahner, Jr., last week’s winner.
Morone Arthofer, point leader Steven Steigerwalt and Steve Hoffman completed the top five.
Morone Arthofer, Labar and Ahner, Jr., won their respective heats.
After an intense three-way battle through the first 13 laps, Lehighton’s Kris Graver was able to slip underneath defending class champ and his uncle, Kevin Graver, Jr., and then went on to his second straight Pro4 Late Model win.
Barry Christman, Jr., who was part of the first half battle with the Graver’s, finished a very close third after yet another tight duel with Graver, Jr.
The lone heat went to Graver, Jr.
In the Dirt Modifieds it was 2009 champion Randy Thomas of Palmerton notching his first win of the season. Thomas took the lead from Jeff Parker with an outside pass on lap two and once in front he was never headed.
Parker, a winner one week earlier finished second and was also a heat winner.
Modified Feature Finish, 35 Laps: 1.Chip Santee 2.John Bennett 3.Bill Teel 4.James Pritchard, Jr. 5.Rick Reichenbach 6.Lonnie Behler 7.Don Wagner 8.Brian DeFebo 9.Andy Szapacs 10.Matt Higgins 11.Keith Mullineaux 12.Stacey Brown 13.Todd Baer 14.Billy Weichert 15.Earl Paulus