Matt Hirschman grew up dreaming of Daytona, but the Northampton, Pennsylvania, native etched his name in different Florida racing history Saturday night.
Hirschman claimed the checkered flag at New Smyrna Speedway in the inaugural NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at the half-mile bullring, opening the 2022 season by winning the Mayhew Tools Dominator Pole Award and heading the field over the final 40 laps to earn his fifth career Tour victory Saturday in the New Smyrna Visitors Bureau 200.
“I never made it to Daytona or the Daytona 500, but coming down here to be a part of Speedweeks and win races, and this being the first time the Whelen Modifieds are ever here, it just means a lot,” Hirschman told FloRacing. “It’s a lot of work. I appreciate all the effort by the PD Motorsports team and we got a lot of work ahead of us yet this week.”
Indeed, New Smyrna’s World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing is still young and has featured modified events for decades. Hirschman has found plenty of success around the high-banked bullring in a tour modified, winning three of the last four class titles. But never had the Whelen Modified Tour hosted an official event at the 0.48-mile track.
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Hirschman, whose family has a rich history in modifieds between himself and his father Tony Hirschman, took a moment to soak in the win in a very familiar Victory Lane.
“You feel like you made it when you come down here and you win a big race,” Hirschman said. “Like I said, never made it to Daytona, but this is huge for me. I’m really proud of everybody, myself included. that we’ve been able to accomplish so much down here. Awesome.”
The winning decision came under the race’s final caution on Lap 150, when Hirschman came down pit road for one last stop after saving some fresh rubber for a late charge.
“It was my call,” Hirschman said. “I’m not taking any credit away from anybody else, but we talked about it a little bit, and I made the call to [say] let’s put them on now. And if a perfect caution came for someone at the end, and you get beat by that, that’s racing.”
Instead, it was Hirschman who rocketed to the front around Ron Silk and brought Eric Goodale along with him. Goodale held within 0.3 seconds of Hirschman for most of the run, but in the end, Hirschman was just too strong.
“I knew I’d probably want it to get him early on in that run,” Goodale said. “Matt’s way too good of a driver to make mistakes late in the race, and I knew about with about 15 laps to go he probably had the better car. But I was hoping the lapped traffic or a mistake on his behalf would put us right back there in the mix, and we were driving away from third, so I was just trying to thing as hard as I could to not make any mistakes and stay with him in case he bobbled there.
“But just proud of my guys. We’ve been fast right from our first time out here today, so just really happy with the overall speed of the car.”
The No. 60 car Hirschman wheeled started on the pole alongside Ryan Preece, who found himself driving the familiar “Ole Blue” for Jan Boehler, just like he did back in 2008. Hirschman got the jump and maintained the lead over the first 60 laps of the race. But shortly before the halfway mark, Preece was able to get to Hirschman’s inside and use the lapped car of Ken Hagy as a pick to get to the lead.
Hirschman began to fade and found himself seventh as the third caution of the day found Matt Kimball backwards on the inside of Turn 2 at Lap 97.
Pit strategy jumbled the field and found Hirschman mired back in 15th place while others like Silk, Andrew Krause, Jon McKennedy and Austin Beers cycled to the front of the field.
The event came to a halt at Lap 141 though when a battle for fourth went awry. Preece battled to the inside of Krause exiting the fourth turn and washed up into Krause’s driver-side door. The No. 3 broke loose, and Preece corrected back into Krause’s left rear, sending both cars sliding with Krause’s No. 24 car getting the worst of it, pounding the inside wall on the frontstretch hard with the left front of the vehicle. Krause exited the car unharmed while Preece carried on.
The final yellow of the day flew at Lap 150, when seven cars piled into each other along the backstretch, with only Chris Young among those unable to continue.
At the finish, behind Hirschman, Goodale, Mike Christopher Jr., Jon McKennedy and Tyler Rypkema completed the top five. Rounding out the top 10 were Craig Lutz, Silk, Tommy Catalano, Patrick Emerling and Preece.
Christopher was named the Sunoco Rookie of the Race as the highest-finishing rookie driver at New Smyrna.
Three-time and defending tour champion Justin Bonsignore saw his night end after just 32 laps as a mechanical failure took him out of contention.