The 4th Turn: 6/10/2021

~ By Tom Boggie

I’ve been sitting here all week, wracking my brain to try to come up with a proper adjective for Marc Johnson.

Yeah, I know. I should be doing something more constructive with my time than trying to find the proper pigeon hole for a modified driver.

Hey, it’s my time and I’ll do what I want with it.

Here’s my dilemma. Johnson won his first big block modified feature ever last Saturday night at Lebanon Valley Speedway, putting him into an elite group of drivers. But what is he, really?

At 41, he’s too old to be called a young gun.

For years, when he first started out and his late father Brett was building his motors, it was easy to label him as an underdog. But now that he’s teamed up with Scott Hamlin Racing and has a stable of top-shelf sponsors, that no longer fits.

Legend? Not really appropriate. That’s reserved for Hall of Famers, guys like Brett Hearn with his 900-plus wins and Ken Tremont Jr., the winningest modified driver in the history of Lebanon Valley and a 13-time champion at Albany-Saratoga. Granted, Johnson has beaten them on a regular basis, especially at Albany-Saratoga. Don’t forget, Johnson won his first track championship at Albany-Saratoga in 2016 by finishing ahead of Hearn on the final night of the season and taking the title by one point. Do you automatically become a legend because you beat a legend?

Giant-killer? That’s a tough one. He does have those wins over guys like Hearn and Tremont at Albany-Saratoga, and he did finish third in the Salute to the Troops 150 at Oswego in 2016. That 2016 championship is pretty noteworthy because, with the exception of 2011 (when Albany-Saratoga was asphalt and sanctioned by NASCAR), no one other than Hearn or Tremont had won the track championship at Malta since 2002. But giant-killer is usually a one-time thing. After all, David only slew Goliath once.

Mr. Consistency? No one wants to have that bling dangling around their neck, even it is true. Since 2013, Johnson had finished out of the top three in the modified point race at Albany-Saratoga just once, dropping to sixth in 2017. He’s won two championships (2016 and 2019), has finished second twice, including last year, and has been third three times. Of Johnson’s 17 career wins at Albany-Saratoga, the first came in Malta’s asphalt transformation in 2010, and 15 have come in regular distance races. If I’m not mistaken, when he won the 56-lap opener this season, that was the longest race he’s ever won at Malta. His only other extra-distance victory came in the 50-lap STSS race in 2018, which gave him his biggest payday at Malta ($6,000).

Marc Johnson is just one hard-working racecar driver who started off with literally nothing, and worked his butt off and paid his dues (as well as that personal bank loan he took out in 2016 to buy the motor that helped him win his first championship at Albany-Saratoga) to get to the upper echelon, where he’s now earned a seat at the table with the other top stars of the sport. It won’t fit on the back of a T-shirt, but it’s appropriate.

MALTA NOTES
Jack Johnson used to tell me that races are won in the garage during the week. That was certainly true for Tremont last Friday night at Albany-Saratoga.

To say that Tremont had struggled in the first six nights of the 2021 season was an understatement. Plagued by bad heat race runs, Tremont found himself starting deep in the pack nearly every Friday night, and until last week, hadn’t finished in the top five.

“Shocks and springs, shocks and springs, shocks and springs,” Tremont chanted when I asked him what changes, if any, he had made to his car that resulted in his first win of the season. “We had our best combination tonight, but I think we can still get better.

“We’ve been trying this and trying that, trying this and trying that. Tonight was the best I’ve felt all year.”

He admitted that starting 10th, rather than the 29th that had been the norm recently, probably helped, but he also pointed out that it’s getting tougher and tougher for drivers to work their way to the front.
“I’m not saying that people can’t come from the back and win,” he said. “But these cars are so much alike and everyone is running the same stuff. There’s always going to be decent drivers starting in the top five, and sometimes, there are going to be multiple drivers who can win races starting in the top five. It’s tough.”

That being said, there were a lot of hard chargers last Friday. Tremont (10th starting spot), Marc Johnson (15th), Ronnie Johnson (11th), Jack Lehner (18th) and Mike Mahaney (13th) made up the top five, while Anthony Perrego came from 22nd to finish sixth.

Tremont admitted that he was starting to have some self-doubts after his slow start this season. His win Friday was his 79th career victory at Albany-Saratoga, but he doesn’t take them for granted anymore.
“In my mind, I don’t know that,” he answered when asked about adding more wins to his total. “You think that you can, but you really never know.”

By finishing second last Friday, Marc Johnson moved into a tie with Perrego for the modified point lead with 290 points.

Tim Hartman Jr. and Kim Duell each took another step toward achieving their preseason goals with wins in their respective divisions last Friday.

Hartman Jr. picked up career win No. 30 in the sportsman division, and he now needs two more to tie Mike Ballestero at the top of the all-time win list with 32. “That was our goal when we set out,” Hartman Jr. said in victory lane. “We’ve got two of the four and there’s still a lot of the season left, so hopefully, we can get the other two.”

Duell picked up his first pro stock win of the year in his Twister chassis, putting him back into a tie with Rob Yetman with 25 career wins, just one behind all-time leader Joe Santoro. Duell and Jason Meltz put on a heck of a show, running side-by-side for most of the 25-lap feature. Meltz went into the fourth turn too hard on the final lap and spun, dropping to sixth in the final order of finish.

After getting his first limited sportsman win of the season, Bryce Breault said he’s going to step up to the sportsman division next year. Because of the limited schedule in 2020, he wanted to stay in the limiteds for one more season to get more experience. “Hopefully, we can get back-to-back championships,” he said.

AROUND THE TRACKS
Peter Britten had a rocky night at Albany-Saratoga Friday, failing to qualify in his heat race and then finishing 22nd, but he bounced back with his first win of the year Saturday at Canandaigua.

Jack Speshock, who moved up to modifieds this season, reached a minor milestone with his first heat race win last Friday.

Zach Buff, the younger of the three racing Buff brothers, is on a roll at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, as he drove to his third straight limited sportsman win Sunday night.

Tim Laduc recorded his 54th career win last Saturday night in the sportsman/modified feature at Devil’s Bowl. The win total matches the family car number of 54, which his late father Charlie started campaigning in the 1960s. But Tim’s victory Saturday came in Brian Whittemore’s No. 36 modified, which Laduc borrowed after wrecking his own car two weeks ago.

Congratulations to Rocky Warner, who chalked up his first modified victory at Utica-Rome last weekend. Warner was piloting the Jason Simmons No. 98, giving the Warner-Simmons team their first win together.

The highlight of Saturday night’s card at Lebanon Valley will be the 9th annual JC Flach Memorial for modifieds, which will pay $5,000 to win.

Glen Ridge will be hosting the 31-lap Steve “Fluffy” McMurray Memorial for mini-stocks on Sunday. Through the generosity of friends and family members of McMurray, both the dual-cam and single-cam winners will receive a huge $1,111.89 payout, and there will be other bonus money on the line.

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