OK, put yourself in Ronnie Johnson’s shoes.
For the first month of the season, he struggled to find the right setup at Fonda Speedway. In four races, he’d finished no better than seventh, which, for a defending champion, can get to be pretty frustrating.
But last Saturday, the car was quick, he had a good starting spot (that’s what a string of mediocre finishes will do for you) and by lap 10, he was leading and pulling away from the field.
End of story, right?
Not quite. On lap 23, Stewart Friesen, who had started 15th, blew by Johnson like he was standing still and went on to record his fourth consecutive modified victory.
Johnson’s immediate reaction when Friesen flew by?
“It blew my mind,” he said Monday.
One of the amazing things about Friesen’s win is that the 30-lap race was run without a caution. He came from deep in the pack to catch one of the best drivers at the speedway, and made it look easy.
“I felt like I was going to win,” said Johnson. “Friesen had started 15th, it was going green to checkers . . . as fast as I was, yeah, I thought I was going to win.”
The question now becomes, now what? Unless Friesen gets into an accident or suffers some kind of mechanical problem, can anyone at Fonda beat him?
“They might as well put a bounty on him,” said Johnson with a laugh.
“It’s driving me nuts,” he admitted. “Can I find another three-tenths [of a second]? I don’t know, but I do know it’s making us work harder.
“Saturday night was the first time we’ve been decent all year, but he’s been good right from the start. He has three things going for him. He’s got a good car, he’s knowledgeable and he’s a very talented driver.”
Although Johnson felt better running second than he did finishing seventh, the real test will come Saturday, when he starts a little deeper in the field. He still won’t be in Friesen territory, but he’ll have to get to the front quicker than the Canadian Clipper if he wants to get his first win of the season.
“For the first four weeks, I was racing with the same setup I had last year that worked, but now, it’s not going,” said Johnson. “Last week, I finally said it was time to turn the page and try something different, and I felt the changes we made made the car better. Now, we just have to go back this week and back it up.”
Friesen’s winning streak has put him in an elite class at Fonda.
The last driver to win four modified features in a row was Hall of Famer Mike Romano, who did it in 1990. Kevin Collins broke Romano’s streak with a victory in the Syracuse qualifier that year.
“You know what happened that night?” said Romano. “The steering wheel came off on lap eight. I was going into the third turn and the steering wheel came off and I ended up sending Maynard Forrette off into the woods. By the time I got situated and got the steering wheel back on, I lost a lap.”
Only five drivers have won five in a row. That illustrious list includes Steve Danish, Pete Corey, Rene Charland, Lou Lazzaro and Ronnie Johnson’s father, Jack.
Danish and Jack Johnson share the track record of seven consecutive wins. Danish did it in 1954, while Johnson accomplished the feat twice, first in 1981 and again in 1985. Each time, C.D. Coville snapped the streak.
Around the tracks
u Brett Hearn, the winningest driver in the history of Albany-Saratoga, picked up his 100th career modified win at the Malta track last week.
“The cushion was really rough, and you really had to be careful out there,” said Hearn after his win. “I was so wrapped up in the race that I wasn’t even thinking about the 100th win.”
u Andy Durie won the budget sportsman feature at Malta in a borrowed car. The week before, he had totaled his own car when he barrel-rolled down the front stretch.
Although the victory was Durie’s first on dirt at Albany-Saratoga, he did win two sportsman features on asphalt in 2010, after moving up from the limited class.
u Bobby Hackel IV had his two-race winning streak snapped by Durie, but Hackel turned a miserable night into a decent one. He spun out in warmups, missed the call for his scheduled heat race, spun put again when he did go out for a qualifier and was added to the feature because of his top-five status in the point standings. But after starting 29th, he roared through the field and finished fourth.
“This is the biggest roller-coaster you can be on,” said Hackel as his crew prepared the car for the feature. “But when you go down, you have to just wait until it goes back up.”
u After a full week working on the racing surface, The Ridge should be ready to roll tonight, according to Romano.
“It would have helped if we hadn’t had a lot of rain [on Tuesday], but it looks good for [tonight],” he said. “It should be a lot better.”
u Is it just coincidence that Friesen won the track championship at Utica-Rome in 2004 driving the Madsen Motorsports No. 20, the same sponsorship and number that Hearn carries now?
u Vince Quenneville Jr. picked up his second straight NASCAR modified win Sunday at Devil’s Bowl. By virtue of a random inversion draw by the fans, Quenneville started on the pole and led flag-to-flag. He drove away from an early tangle with defending track champion Ron Proctor, who finished seventh.
u Nice job by Matt Depew Friday at Albany-Saratoga, winning his heat race and then finishing third in the modified feature. Depew, whose last win at the Malta track came in 2009 in the sportsman division, finished second twice in 2010 when the racing surface was asphalt, following Joe Williams in one feature and Randy Hotaling in the other.
u Albany-Saratoga Speedway’s card tonight includes the Andy Sherman $1,000-to-win Budget Sportsman Special.