After grabbing the provisional pole, Steve Arpin thought he had dodged his biggest bullet when Joey Coulter, fastest in Saturday’s extended practice for the ARCA Racing Series at Salem Speedway, fell short of his qualifying time.
He thought wrong.
Instead, it was another first-time pole winner that would end the day celebrating. Max Gresham, a 16-year-old making his ARCA debut (and fresh off a win at South Boston in the K&N East Series) surprised everyone in attendance at Salem, grabbing the top spot for Sunday’s 200-lap race. Driving a No. 71 Toyota owned by his family, the teen clocked in with a time of 17.266 seconds to win the pole by .03 seconds over his closest competition.
Arpin will start on the outside of the front row, with the top five being rounded out by Coulter, nine-time Salem winner Frank Kimmel, and Venturini Motorsports teammate Mikey Kile, who made his run in a backup car after cutting a tire during practice. Other notables that narrowly missed a top-five spot in qualifying included Roush Fenway Racing development driver Chris Buescher, who ran sixth despite hitting his rev limiter extremely early on the frontstretch, and current ARCA points leader Justin Marks, who nearly lost his car exiting turn 4 but held on for ninth.
The qualifying session had only one incident, with Mike Holt pancaking the right side of his No. 10 Fast Track Racing machine on exit of turn 3. Brandon McReynolds, the son of Larry who is also making his ARCA debut, skidded through turns 3 and 4 but managed to keep his Eddie Sharp Racing Toyota off the wall. He’ll roll off 14th.
In all, 34 cars were at the track on Friday. However, the ability of two starters to take the green flag remains doubtful: Holt’s car was heavily damaged in qualifying, and Chase Mattioli failed to make a qualifying attempt after he flattened the rear end of his machine with less than five minutes to go in practice.
What to Watch For Sunday
Who Can Handle Four Unique Turns?
Turns 1 and 2 at Salem, a .555-mile paved oval, resemble a cross between the sweeping 1 and 2 of Darlington and the high-banked 1 and 2 of Dover. But turns 3 and 4 resemble that of Rockingham, a seeming ramp that takes cars straight to the top of the track. Salem’s a little bit of a lot of things, and as a result there are numerous ways to get around it. Just about all of the drivers in turns 3 and 4 found themselves pushing towards the wall after hitting the bumps of turn 3, while turns 1 and 2 offered a little more diversity. Most of the field seemed to be content feathering the throttle through 1 and 2, but the wily veteran Kimmel did things differently. Kimmel instead would roll through turn 1, laying off the throttle until he matted it entering turn 2. The only other driver who audibly was doing the same thing was Buescher; both drivers ran in the top 10 in this event one year ago, and both were in the top 10 in practice.
NASCAR’s Future on Display
In addition to Buescher, who nearly won this race one year ago, Larry McReynolds’s son Brandon is making his ARCA debut on Sunday, as is Rick Ware Racing development driver Timmy Hill. McReynolds, who qualified a disappointing 14th after a near wreck, was nonetheless very excited about Sunday’s race.
“You get to run right up against the wall like Darlington, which is always a lot of fun,” said McReynolds of his Salem experience to date. His No. 6 team spent the early part of practice working on getting the chassis up off the racetrack, while the young driver adjusted to the challenging high-banked oval. This is the first of at least two races for McReynolds, who unexpectedly found himself in the ESR seat.
“It’s really overwhelming. Eddie [Sharp] took a big chance on me to come up here and run me with hardly any funding. It’s pretty impressive to see him take a shot on an 18-year-old kid who really hasn’t proven himself. And we’re going to run Talladega in a few weeks, so that’s exciting. The Walk of Fame down in Talladega is going to be on the car, we’re going to run the old No. 28 number, which is going to be cool with dad involved.”
“I think the biggest thing is seeing some results from here and Talladega, and then we’ll see what we’ve got for the rest of the year.”
Hill, an accomplished racer in the Allison Legacy Series who will start 10th in the first of a five-race deal with Rick Ware Racing entry, echoed the sentiments of McReynolds on tackling the 50-plus year old facility, noting “this track is different from any track I’ve ever raced on, and it’s one of the roughest.”
Salem Speedway made headlines in the weeks leading up to this weekend on arcaracing.com for the extensive renovations being done to the track’s infield. Problem is, it’s race weekend, and the renovations are nowhere near done.
Early Saturday morning, construction crews were laying down concrete highway dividers to extend pit road. Instead of concrete behind pit wall for the team’s stalls and equipment, there are patches of mud and grass for a fortunate few. Construction dust was continually being whipped up, especially at the exit of turn 4 and the entrance of pit road.
And for at least one competitor, that sits just fine.
“This is what I’m used to,” said Alli Owens. “I’m from the mudholes of Florida. This is like racing at Barbersville and New Smyrna. We go to all these beautiful facilities all throughout the country, and we’re grateful for them, but it’s tracks like these that bring you back.”
Even the track surface is proving to be a challenge. Said Arpin, “I would say that turns 3 and 4 are just one big bump. It’s definitely rough over there… it gives the place character.”
“You look in the middle of 3 and 4, there’s patches up there, the track’s really coming apart up there.”
Lastly, there’s the physical challenge of the season’s first spring race. The track is abrasive enough, but with temperatures forecasted to be pushing 80 degrees, there’s no doubt that the drivers in Sunday’s field are going to be tested.
“You’ve got to be physically fit,” said Robb Brent, who qualified 17th. “It’s going to be hot, the track’s really bumpy.”
Dealing with Traffic
Lastly, just as in any ARCA race, the discrepancy in speeds between the cars at the front and back of the field is pronounced. That makes things tough enough, but some visibility problems make dealing with lapped traffic all but impossible at this track. “When you’re up at the fence coming out of 3 and 4, you’re looking through the top of the windshield because the banking is so high,” said Arpin.
“You’ve got to read the guys two or three laps before you come up on them.”
In the 34-car field, 10 entries either failed to post a qualifying time or ran a time trial speed more than 10 mph off pole speed. That should make for a crazy Sunday, as ARCA, unlike NASCAR, does not force the cars to run a minimum speed.