Bryan Davis Keith · Friday October 8, 2010
And then there were three.
Leaving New Jersey Motorsports Park back in August, it seemed like all the parity and chaos that has made the 2010 ARCA Racing Series season among the most contested points chase seen at any level of stock car racing in recent memory (15 winners in 19 races, as many as nine drivers within a few hundred markers of the lead halfway into the season) was finally giving way to sensibility. Then title contender Justin Marks saw a dominant run evaporate after being wrecked by Chris Buescher late in the running, opening the door for nine-time champion Frank Kimmel to score a top-5 finish on one of his weakest tracks, and to inherit the lead heading into a stretch of dirt tracks and bullrings that was critical to his past title runs.
Mechanical gremlins had other plans, sidelining the No. 44 team from the title chase in the coming weeks and opening the door for ARCA to have it’s third new champion in as many seasons. Three drivers with personalities and driving styles radically different from each other, representative of the diversity that the ARCA Racing Series prides itself on having and preserving.
Heading into Saturday’s 200-mile finale at Rockingham, the title of points leader falls on Patrick Sheltra, ARCA’s “Mr. Showtime.” Sheltra’s run to the championship has seen him live up to his moniker. Following that crazy day in New Jersey, Sheltra shook off a disappointing 13th-place finish in dramatic fashion on the dirt track at Springfield; running sixth on a late-race restart, the driver of the No. 60 made a bonzai charge at the drop of the green that saw Sheltra leave the field in literal dust en route to his first win of the 2010 season. The aggression didn’t stop there; Sheltra was relentless in a dominating follow-up win at Chicago, as well as in scoring another top 5 on the dirt at DuQuoin and leading laps en route to a third place run at Toledo.
While Sheltra spent Friday’s post-qualifying press conference noting that it was important for him to be consistent and conservative tackling the Rock on Saturday, his brash, take no prisoners aggression on the track has the ARCA veteran, now in his fourth full season on tour, poised to take home title number one.
Perhaps the exact opposite approach has been taken by Tom Hessert, III, who’s ridden an unflappable wave of consistency since scoring his first career win at Iowa in July; including that win, the driver of the No. 77 has finished in the top 10 for 11 consecutive races. It’s been a polar opposite campaign for Cunningham Motorsports, who last year with Parker Kligerman driving won a series-leading nine races (including the finale at the Rock) but fell short in the title chase. This year has been about top 10s, yet the team still sits where they did in this race one year ago, a prime contender for the ARCA crown.
And then there’s Craig Goess, Eddie Sharp Racing’s shot to defend the title they won in 2009 with Justin Lofton. Goess is about as get-down-to-business a driver as one will find at any level of stock car racing, and that’s been a good thing for the No. 81 team in 2010, because there’s been plenty of adversity that’s taken willpower to get through. Take again, the weekend in New Jersey that set the title picture in motion for the ARCA competitors. Goess, who was the points leader headed into that event, wrecked his primary car early in the first practice. The team rushed to prepare the backup, only to have the motor explode in that machine.
Despite all the struggles, Goess kept his head down and his focus up. Corresponding with veteran Frank Kimmel among other activities, Goess salvaged an eighth-place finish at New Jersey, keeping his 2010 campaign alive and kicking. And that’s been the norm, not the special event, for ESR’s No. 81 team. Be it stealing a win through strategy and a picture-perfect late restart at Pocono in June despite Mikey Kile having perhaps the most dominant car seen in ARCA all season along or posting back-to-back career best efforts on the two dirt tracks during the final homestretch of races, Goess’ focus has been critical in keeping ESR in the running to repeat.
Those same differences in style and demeanor were on display for all to see entering this weekend’s finale in North Carolina. Patrick Sheltra and Sheltra Motorsports showed up in style, with the largest contingent of guests and crew anywhere in the garage. And Sheltra held nothing back behind the wheel, pressing so hard on his qualifying lap that he nearly spun himself out in turn 2, a slip-up that yielded a highlight reel save but may well have cost the Florida-native the pole…and 15 valuable points. Mr. Showtime was nonetheless just that during Friday’s time trials.
Tom Hessert, III continued to fly under the radar, even coming into the weekend a mere 20 points out of the lead. Coming in as the darkhorse and the third place of the three title contenders, Hessert’s team has taken the “aww shucks, we’re happy to be here” mentality to heart.
“We’re in a position tomorrow where no matter what we’ve had a terrific season,” Hessert said. “Third is our worst case scenario, so realistically we’re not in position to lose anything, whereas the other guys have something to lose. That’s something to be optimistic about, no matter where we are we can only improve.”
That said, Hessert is also aware that his team has an advantage over anyone else in the field; Cunningham Motorsports won this event one year ago. And the very car that Kligerman won with is being driven by his teammate Dakoda Armstrong, meaning feedback is readily available. Both at and away from the track.
“Parker and his crew chief Chris Carrier have really made themselves available to us,” replied Hessert when asked if last season’s win was going to be an advantage. “Anytime we have questions we can call them. It’s nice to have them behind us.”
Speaking softly and carrying a big stick for a Penske-backed entry. It may have been quietly, but Tom Hessert, III has entered this title fight.
As for Craig Goess, his No. 81 team has again had no choice but to buckle down and get to business. After, as the driver put it, “running out of time” with their cars during ARCA open testing at Rockingham on Thursday, the No. 81 team figured out the right direction for their car on Friday, and posted a third-place qualifying effort, the best of the three title contenders. That still wasn’t enough for Goess, who noted that qualifying “was a little disappointing, I thought we had drawn even [with Sheltra]. But five’s better than nothing.”
Perhaps no more evidence was needed than seeing each of the three drivers over the course of Friday. Sheltra was loud and pleasant over the radio, cracking jokes in the media center. Hessert was happy to spar with Sheltra, seemingly enjoying his time before the media at Rockingham and seemingly more at ease than either of his competitors. And Goess was seldom to be found outside of his race car, resting in the team’s hauler with the lights dimmed and the TV on.
Three different personalities. Three different driving styles. Three strong teams. Rockingham’s in for one hell of a conclusion to what has been one hell of an ARCA Racing Series season.
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