It didn’t used to be this way in ARCA.
It used to be a foregone conclusion. A challenger would rise, a challenger would fall, and Frank Kimmel would ride off into the sunset with another ARCA championship.
This past Sunday at Toledo, Kimmel finished fourth, yet another top five at a track that has been beyond generous to one of ARCA’s all-time greats. But Kimmel and his self-owned operation was a top-10 team this Sunday, still not the dominant force that Larry Clement’s Tri-State Motorsports team and Kimmel were for the better part of the last decade. Even with the fourth-place run, it was clear that Kimmel’s No. 44 team still hadn’t put their finger on that something that the veteran acknowledged they were missing a few months back, speaking with Frontstretch at Palm Beach about the upcoming season.
And though even Truck Series regular Matt Crafton couldn’t seem to get in a groove either driving a second Kimmel Racing entry, running outside the top 10 for much of the race before a late-race charge got him up to fifth, Kimmel ended this Sunday a prime contender in what has become the most wide-open ARCA title chase since the 1990s.
For while Kimmel may still be building back to the days when he was driving the No. 46 car, and almost a shoe-in to win every weekend, there doesn’t seem to be a driver in this year’s ARCA field ready to step up and drive off with this one. 200 laps at Toledo didn’t just shake up the ARCA regulars; it put the field in a blender and hit liquify.
Patrick Sheltra emerged the points leader on the strength of an eighth-place run. Not too bad, considering he started from the back on Sunday after making a post-qualifying adjustment the day before. But to say Sheltra and Co. were lost for much of Sunday wouldn’t be completely inaccurate; Sheltra noted on Saturday that despite being one of only three drivers in the field to have the advantage of running a 105-inch wheelbase chassis, a decided advantage on the tight confines of Toledo, his team was still unable to make his Dodge turn. The No. 60 team are the only team in the ARCA Racing Series to have scored top-10 finishes in each of the first six races, but handling issues such as those they faced this weekend indicate that the move from a top-10 to a top-five contender week after week may still be pending.
Sheltra wrestled the points lead from Steve Arpin, whose misfortune making his three-week Nationwide Series debut with JR Motorsports seems to have followed him home to ARCA. Arpin, who was a fixture in the top 10 on Sunday despite fighting a “dirt-track loose” racecar, found himself in the turn 4 wall on lap 140 after Kimmel made heavy contact with him in turn 4. While accounts were disputed as to whether the contact was intentional, Arpin certainly believed it was… and if it was, Kimmel did the job well. Arpin’s Toyota was obliterated in the crash, and the No. 55 team was unable to return, finishing 23rd. Falling from first to fourth in points, Arpin now heads into the weekend’s Nationwide Series event at Charlotte having finished outside the top 10 in all of his stock car starts dating back to his last victory, at Texas in mid-April.
Mikey Kile, the second barrel of Venturini Motorsports’ 1-2 shot at the ARCA championship in 2010, finished 10th after fading from a top-five position over the final 50 laps in what was another disappointing day for a No. 25 team that’s been consistently among the fastest on the track, but struggling to close the deal (the team also finished outside the top 20 after a nasty wreck in the season’s first short-track race at Salem last month). Kile was also the unfortunate driver to hit a jackrabbit that somehow got onto the racetrack and spent nearly 10 green- and yellow-flag laps running on the racing surface before running into Kile’s right-front fender at the start/finish line.
As for Justin Marks, who now finds himself second in the standings, 10 markers from the lead, his Win-Tron Racing dodged one bullet only to find their way in front of another. The No. 32 team, which has had ghosts in their motors on several occasions already in 2010, found themselves dealing with another miss in the engine throughout practice on Saturday. The team was able to fix the problem, however, and ran up front with the leaders all day Sunday… until lap 198. Marks, who was running fourth with two laps to go, suffered a flat tire and was forced off the race track, dropping to 16th in the final running order and out of the points lead. Marks, who is making a title run in the ARCA ranks after spending several seasons in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, has demonstrated veteran poise throughout the 2010 campaign thus far… but for as good as the No. 32 team has been, durability continues to be a question mark.
And just like the race prior to this one at Talladega, Toledo marked another season turnaround for another contender. In a late-race charge to a runner-up finish that saw him use the high side, low side, middle groove and chrome horn, Joey Coulter finally brought home his first top five of the 2010 season, the first time that the No. 16 team earned a finish representative of just how fast they’ve been with longtime NASCAR crew chief Harold Holly atop the pit box. And though Coulter still sits 240 points out of the lead even after Toledo, his team could not have chosen a better time to get hot; the next two circuits on the ARCA schedule are NASCAR stalwart venues at Pocono and Michigan.
It didn’t used to be like this in the ARCA ranks. But having a wide-open title race with every team appearing both capable of winning, yet vulnerable, on any given weekend, this season’s got the makings of a classic.
See you in the Poconos.