By FRANK CATIZONE
MIDDLETOWN – Howie Finch drove home with the biggest victory of his racing career Friday night as he captured an apparent triumph in the Sportsman 50-lap championship event during the 57th annual Eastern States Weekend Racing Festival at the Orange County Fair Speedway.
However, following a late-night technical inspection, Finch was stripped of the win by OCFS chief inspector George Johnson for racing with an illegal cam shaft. The infraction handed the victory and $5,000 prize money over to Middletown’s Jared LaBagh, who earned his first Eastern States title.
LaBagh, who pressured Finch during the latter stages of the race, moved into contention when leader Corey Cormier of Middletown was forced to the pits on the 38th lap with a left rear flat on his car. That handed the lead over to Finch and set the stage for an exciting three-car battle to the end of the event.
Finch, who has battled through his share of bad luck during the 2018 racing season, finally appeared to have turned the tables as he remained in front until Chris Lynch was involved in a second-turn incident to force a caution with 45 laps completed. Both LaBagh and Sleight was closing in on Finch before the caution.
LaBagh, starting the double-file restart on the outside, got the jump on Finch while racing through the first and second turns for a momentary advantage. But Finch rode his momentum off the second turn and regained first place before a homestretch accident involving Brad Szulewski and Dan Morgiewicz slowed action again with 47 laps down.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen again,’’ said Finch. “There’s no way I was going to let him (LaBagh) beat me on another restart.’’
Finch was able to remain ahead when racing resumed and went on to finished ahead of LaBagh, Sleight, Joe Conklin and Jimmy Johnson.
However, following the inspection, Finch was served with more bad luck this season as his car was disqualified shortly after midnight because of the illegal cam shaft.
Cormier, who started on the outside pole, was the dominant factor during the early stages of the race and was able to stretch out big leads over the rest of the starting 30-car field. But his luck changed after completing 37 laps when his car slowed on the back stretch and went to the pits.
Stewart Friesen picked up a very convincing victory in the Past Champions Invitational 20-lap feature as he finished ahead of Jimmy Horton, Bobby Varin, Tommy Meier and Billy Decker.
Friesen started on the front row and led the entire event. Will Cagle, a four-time Eastern States champion and former OCFS general manager, participating in the race behind the wheel of Richie Eurich’s No. 10 back-up car. Cagle is 80 years old.
Brett Hearn, who leads all drivers with 12 Eastern States 200 championships, grabbed the pole for Sunday’s 57th edition of this prestigious event. Jeff Heotzler Sr. will start on the outside of Hearn – setting the stage for a setting that has happened many times in the past.
Sportsman Feature Finish, 50 Laps: 1. Jared LaBagh, 2. Greg Sleight, 3. Joe Conklin, 4. Jimmy Johnson, 5. Tommy Vigh Jr., 6. Sammy Martz Jr., 7. Randy Sherlock, 8. Tyler Thompson, 9. Patrick Murphy, 10. Darrell Ford, 11. Brad Szulewski, 12. Donnie Buccafusca, 13. Bobby Flood, 14. Hunter Lapp, 15. Tyler Peet, 16. Chris Stevens, 17. Joey Coppola, 18. Joe Bonetti, 19. Mike Sabia, 20. Dan Morgiewicz, 21. Matt Shultz, 22. Andrew Buff, 23. Chris Lynch, 24. Corey Cormier, 25. Mel Schrufer, 26. Tyler Boniface, 27. Cole Hentschel, 28. John Virglio, 29. Jesse Leiby. Disqualified: Howie Finch III (cam shaft).
Past Champions Race, 20 Laps: 1. Stewart Friesen, 2. Jimmy Horton, 3. Bobby Varin, 4. Tommy Meier, 5. Billy Decker, 6. Brett Hearn, 7. Jerry Higbie, 8. Ronnie Johnson, 9. Frank Cozze, 10. Rich Eurich, 11. Chuck McKee, 12. Jeff Heotzler Sr., 13. Will Cagle, 14. Danny Johnson.
Modified Time Trials: 1. Brett Hearn 21.231 seconds; 2. Jeff Heotzler Sr. 21.279; 3. Tim Fuller 21.387; 4. Ryan Godown 21.426, 5. Billy Decker 21.429; 6. Peter Britten 21.454.