To the unknowing eye, Saturday’s Sportsman race might have looked like just another race. In reality, it was the championship round of the Sunoco Race Fuels Drive for the Cup for the Helger’s South Coast Power Equipment Sportsman division. But to one particular driver, the 35-lap feature was a game of chess.
Odds might have seemed steep for Craig Pianka, who sat as far back as 13th overall while he trailed other playoff drivers Chad Baxter, Ed Perry, and Colby Lambert.
Pianka took one lap at a time, getting to the bottom when he could, avoided Cody Tripp’s Lap 17 wreck, and took advantage of restarts on the inside. After working his way by Lambert at about half distance, Pianka passed Perry who was stuck on the outside. Before long Pianka had found himself on the tail of Adam Pettey and Baxter battling hard for third overall.
All Pianka needed to do was find some way to get his nose ahead of Baxters at the wave of the checkered.
Diving into Turn 3 for the final time, Pianka was presented with his one opportunity to make it happen. Using Pettey as a pick in the middle to stall out Baxter, Pianka sent his No. 4 car down the inside. Sandwiched together off of Turn 4, Pianka emerged with the most momentum, crossing the line ahead of Baxter, stealing the championship in absolute shocking fashion.
“Tonight, I played chess,” said Pianka in victory lane. “I knew when it was time to really push it, (it) was this race right here. And that’s what you get!’
After battling mid-pack with half way to go, Pianka had pulled off the improbable, passing Baxter, the hottest driver in the division of the last two years, in the final seconds of the race.
“This is the move, if I’m gonna do it, I gotta do it right now,” Pianka said when asked about his championship winning move. “I needed to make sure I was close enough to take advantage of my position and make the move… I put myself in the right positions all race to give myself that opportunity, and I had to make it work.”
Pianka started the year on a hot streak, winning three of four races to start the season, but as the summer heated up, Pianka cooled off, biding his time until the start of the playoffs.
“The bad crash in Week 5 changed everything,” Pianka reflected. “Right after that, Chad (Baxter) was just dominating.”
With the new playoff format, Pianka knew he had time to let the season come to him.
“Just be in the top four by the end, that’s all I gotta do,” Pianka said in reference to the lead up to the final round of the Drive for the Cup. “I really let the big picture of everything settle in, almost like a game of chess.”
An avid fan of chess, Pianka couldn’t help but draw parallels between the chessboard and the race track.
“In chess, you can make good moves and bad moves, mistakes and sacrifices, have wins, ties and losses. Like AK (Andrew Kun, Pianka’s long-time teammate) said to me before the race: no ties, no losses, just go and get checkmate!
Now a champion in the inaugural season of the playoff era at Seekonk Speedway, Pianka had some fond feedback on the new format. “Kudos to Ed St. Germain for talking Dave into going in the playoff direction. It made it alot more stressful as a driver, that’s for sure, but it was a lot of fun. This is going to work, no doubt about it.”
The title marks Pianka’s first ever Seekonk track championship. “Now that I won one, I feel like I won’t need to chase it for a bunch more years,” Pianka said on plans for future racing efforts. “It’s up to the powers at be if I’m gonna do this again next year. I would love to. It takes a lot, I have a great team… everyone surrounding me…it’s the perfect situation. None of this is possible without everyone I have surrounding me.”
Before any decisions are made on Pianka’s 2023 racing plans, he says for now, he’s “...just really enjoying this (championship), and I’m looking forward to the banquet and the speech in January.”
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