The stories of Joey Coulter and Craig Goess are awfully parallel. Both in their second year of full-time competition in the ARCA Racing Series, the two entered this past weekend’s event at Pocono in similar situations; down in the lower part of the top 10 in the standings, but far from removed from title contention. And both came in riding a huge wave of momentum.
For Goess, it was a streak of three top-five finishes in the last four races, ones that saw his No. 81 team starting to resemble the No. 6 that scored his home at Eddie Sharp Racing the ARCA crown just last year. And for Coulter, that wave came on the heels of a second-place finish at Toledo that saw the No. 16 team finally able to capitalize on the speed they’d shown all year… and come within a bumper or so of their first win in the ARCA ranks.
That sense of momentum, and an impending first career win, was not lost on either driver heading into a weekend where success was paramount.
“I think we’ve got a great chance,” Goess said of his prospects for victory on Saturday morning before the race. “This is probably the coolest place we come to with our series, and it’s an honor to be here with the Cup Series.”
For most, those extra sets of eyes would add plenty of additional pressure for the race. But in public, at least, Goess remained focused on his goals without hesitation.
“I don’t approach these weekends differently,” he explained when considering how the weekend was a companion event with NASCAR’s premier division. “You just know in the back of your mind that possible opportunities are there if you win a race or you do well. I don’t think that makes us or me do anything differently, you’re just aware of it. [But] subconsciously, maybe it does make you give a little bit more.”
Coulter was much on the same page with his fellow competitor, noting that, “I think we’ve got a really good chance. I really think we’re going to have a good day.
“We ran really well here both races last year, and this was the part of the season where we really started taking off.”
Their confidence high, the stage was set for these two to make a charge towards the top five. And it was here where two distinctly similar situations went in two very divergent directions… where two seasons took a very different look when it comes to the ARCA Racing Series title.
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For Goess, everything on Saturday that could go right, did go right. Despite the dominance displayed by polesitter Mikey Kile that at one point saw him leading Goess by literally a mile on the racetrack, Goess proved to be one of only two cars (the other being Chad Finley) capable of staying on the lead lap with the No. 25 machine. Even when Goess had a header crack with less than 20 laps to go, he was able to counter the accompanying loss of engine power by altering his exit, getting back into the throttle even earlier than he had been — and all because the adjustments he had his crew make, especially improving a shortcoming in turn 3, were absolutely spot on.
“I had to get into the gas even sooner to make up for [the lack of horsepower],” said Goess in his post-race presser. “But with the adjustments that we made plus the clean air, we were able to power down and make our straightaways nice and long.”
And, of course, what’s a solid racing performance without a little luck? The race’s final caution fell right as the No. 81 team was completing their green flag stop, and before Kile was able to get back around and lap them. That meant Goess took the point as Kile had to pit under the yellow.
He never looked back. By the checkered flag, he’d distanced himself from Kile by several car lengths in coasting to his first career ARCA triumph.
Coulter, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. Starting right up front with Goess and the other early players in the 2010 title chase, it wasn’t long before he found himself out of touch with them yet again, forced down pit road on lap 4 to deal with a flat tire. While Goess was able to ride, focusing on the adjustments he needed and keeping Kile in sight, Coulter was charging back from the 31st position, unable to crack the top 10 until lap 33.
Sadly, that valiant charge proved all for naught, as Coulter soon found himself back on pit road: this time, with no power to his motor. By the time his team diagnosed and fixed what proved to be an ignition box failure, the No. 16 was 10 laps down and out of the running for even a remotely solid finish at the Pocono track that was so kind to them a season before. To add insult to injury, the team had a second box fail before finally limping home in 26th. Such has been the story of the No. 16 team in 2010… among the fastest cars in the field, with no results to show for it.
Sometimes, it’s just not your year.
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Days like Goess enjoyed on Saturday would lead a lot of drivers to gush, and rightfully so, about their title chases. Not Goess, however. Speaking to him after his win, I asked what it meant to the team about taking Venturini Motorsports’ best shot and still scoring the victory.
“It’s still pretty early,” Goess replied stoically. “We’re heading up on a stretch where there’s eight races in less than eight weeks, and a lot of stuff can happen and not happen.”
To be fair, he has a point; there are 12 races to go in the 2010 ARCA tour on all different sizes and types of tracks. But in a race where literally the top-eight teams left could easily be lifting the trophy at Rockingham in October, the margin for error is ultra slim. In short, even only eight races into the year, Pocono proved to be go time for Goess — and no time for Coulter.
Looking at the last three ARCA champions (Frank Kimmel, Justin Allgaier and Justin Lofton), the statistics bear this out. In their respective 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons, all three finished off the lead lap no more than four times all season, and that was with more than 20 races on the schedule. Coulter’s disastrous Pocono day gave him four finishes off the lead lap already in 2010.
What’s more, these three champions finished outside the top 10 six, five and two times, respectively, all year long. While Coulter’s No. 16 team scored its fifth finish outside the top 10 at Pocono, it’s important to note that Kimmel’s six finishes outside the top 10 came in a 23-race season, not 20.
And, early or not, it’s hard not to notice that both Allgaier and Lofton scored wins at Pocono during their recent title campaigns. Much like Talladega, the Sprint Cup companion weekends are the most visible that ARCA runs, and among the most statistically significant indicators of who is a contender or a pretender year after year.
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Speaking to Goess the morning before his victory drought would come to an end, he was quick to reflect on how hard it truly is to win a race at any level of stock car racing, noting, “how much has to come together to put yourself at the top of the pylon… how much has to line up.”
That lesson was never more apparent as the stars aligned at Pocono, with the No. 81 stealing victory from one of the most dominant cars the ARCA Racing Series has seen since David Stremme lapped the field at Michigan in 2006. They stayed in striking distance of Kile, adjusted properly, and had luck when they needed it.
In a different way, young Coulter learned the same lesson that Saturday. Despite having a bullet for a race car and perhaps the most experienced crew chief in the series in Harold Holly sitting on his war wagon, the No. 16 team floundered to 26th, far from representative of their speed. Sometimes, all it takes is one broken piece to turn a season from terrific to tumultuous.
And so a tale of two seasons ended their latest chapter, diverged in a wood at Pocono this weekend. But based on the direction each one is heading, they may never get back on the same track for the rest of the year.