By John Goralski
Some of the point races at Stafford Motor Speedway have already been decided with such wide margins separating the top contenders. Others are locked in battles with just a few points separating the top drivers with two races remaining.
None of the battles are as tight as the SK Light division. On Friday, Sept. 6, Tony Membrino entered his 20-lap feature race clinging to a tie with newcomer Chase Dowling.
Just over one month ago, Membrino’s second win of the season gave him an almost insurmountable lead, but the August slump has made it anybody’s game.
“My mentality hasn’t changed from the start of the season. I hit the track focused only on winning the race and let the points fall where they may,” Membrino said after regaining the lead despite a 12th place finish. “We’ve proven that we’re a championship caliber team, and we’re showing that once again. Now that everything’s starting to draw to a close and we’re up at the top of the standings again, I’d be lying if I said the thought of a championship hasn’t crossed my mind. I’m just trying to not let it cloud my judgement.”
To call it a drought might seem severe, but Membrino entered August with all but one finish in the top five. He claimed third place and fourth place on Aug. 16 and 23, but an eight place finish on Aug. 30 allowed Dowling to close the gap to nothing.
Membrino has been struggling as of late with his car with rear grip problems in his two top 5 performances and a right rear hub problem in the August finale that almost forced him from the race.
“At the end of the race we looked at the right rear wheel, and it had vibrated so bad that only one lugnut was holding the wheel on,” he said. “That ended our season-long streak of top-6 finishes, and tied up the points battle with Chase.”
The first showdown in September was almost over before it started when they both were caught as casualties during an accident in the feature. Membrino was clinging to a small lead when the accident happened, so it gave him a small two-point lead with two races remaining.
“We’ve already started on repairs, and we’ll have our work cut out for us, but we’ll be ready for Friday,” he said in a statement on Monday, Sept. 9. “We’ve been really fortunate to have gone all the way from April through August without wrecking our car. Some people have already spent thousands of dollars fixing wrecked racecars, and some haven’t been able to finish out the year, so I have to look at the bigger aspect of things and consider myself lucky that things didn’t end up worse.”
The accident came at a terrible time. Membrino’s car performed well in the practice rounds, so it looked like his August doldrums were coming to a close. He started in third place for the heat race, but took the lead by the fourth lap.
“Even though the car started off a little lazy in the center of turns one and two, I knew we had something that we could take to victory lane that night if we adjusted right for the even cooler temperatures for our feature,” he said. “We made a few tweaks to help the car grip in the cooler temperatures, and it worked.”
Membrino opened in 10th place but moved up to fifth by the end of the second lap. But he battled some caution flags which dropped him a few positions, and made a small error on a restart that cost him a few more places.
Membrino survived a scare on one restart when a car careened out of control and struck the side of his car. He sustained some damage but quickly resumed the race.
“Fortunately we got another restart where things went more our way, and I was able to make my way up to third at the halfway point,” he said. “I ran down the leaders with four laps to go. I was just waiting to make my move when another caution came out.”
That was as close as he would come.
On the restart Dowling rearended Membrino, and he dropped to sixth place. As he was getting up to speed on turn one, two cars slowed quickly, and Membrino had no chance to react.
“I ran into the back of the car in front of me with the left front tire, which yanked the wheel out of my hands and next thing I know, Chase cleans out the whole left side of my car trying to miss everything,” he said. “We were both knocked out of the race and watched the rest of it on pit road.”
Now, both drivers are scrambling for Friday’s rematch. On Friday, Sept. 13, the two will meet at the 3rd annual Lincoln Tech Modified Racing series. Doors open at 1 p.m. and practice races begin by 3:15 p.m.
The 20-lap feature race is slated to start after 7:15. With 686 points, Membrino is in the lead by two points. Troy Talman is third place inthe standings but trails by 58 points.