As the ARCA Racing Series left the Berlin bullring in Marne, Mich. for the 12-turn road course in Millville, N.J., attention shifted from the battle for the championship to a handful of left and right-turn specialists. But when Sunday’s 150-miler at New Jersey Motorsports Park was done, the road ringers had gone through the ringer – literally. Sheetmetal was crumpled, the points race got shaken up and the tempers of many competitors were frayed. An onlooker would never know the ARCA cars had ever left Berlin.
The stage was set Saturday morning for ARCA’s three most prominent full-timers in road racing. Robb Brent arrived two weeks off his first career ARCA victory at Pocono with the same car that Justin Allgaier had won at Millville with two seasons ago, a runner-up finish to his credit in ARCA’s rain-soaked Palm Beach road race earlier this season. Tim George Jr. showed up full of confidence, fully ready to compete for his first career ARCA win after Richard Childress Racing had provided him the opportunity to run the Nationwide Series event at Road America back in June. And then there was the weekend’s odds-on favorite, Justin Marks, who won in convincing fashion at Palm Beach in February and came into the weekend needing a strong run after losing the point lead at Berlin.
All three were top 10 in both practice sessions. They qualified first, second and fourth, combining to lead 55 of the 67 laps run at Millville. But it didn’t take long for the day to start turning sour for ARCA’s heavy hitters.
Less than 20 laps into the race, Brent joined the parade of start-and-park cars heading for the garage (eight cars parked less than five laps into the event). Only difference was, his No. 36 had a broken transmission. Working directly behind the frontstretch grandstands, the Allgaier Motorsports crew labored and was able to return their driver to the track, albeit 12 laps down (Brent ended up finishing 19th).
But the real fireworks were yet to come. After running away and hiding from the field for much of the event, Marks lost the lead after George Jr. opted to stay out on old tires and gamble on fuel mileage when the rest of the leaders pitted. Restarting in the top five, Marks was racing hard with Chris Buescher down the frontstretch when Buescher made hard contact with Marks’ rear bumper, pile-driving the No. 32 into the tire barriers in turn 1 and destroying the front end of Marks’s car.
Accounts were mixed. Some said Marks threw a block on Buescher, leaving the Roush Fenway development prospect with no choice but to dump him. The consensus, however, seemed to be shock that Buescher had blatantly taken out a championship contender. The Win-Tron Racing crew was furious, remarking that Buescher “will not have any bit of car left the next race he’s in.” Race fans on the turn 1 end of pit road were clamoring for ARCA officials to penalize Buescher. And the anger wasn’t even confined to Marks’s crew; team members from Joey Coulter‘s No. 16 team, which was uninvolved in the episode, confronted ARCA officials about the danger Buescher’s actions posed on the track and the need for a penalty to be issued.
That penalty never came, with Buescher pushing on to finish second, a career-best result for him on a track longer than a half-mile.
With Marks out of the picture, and the caution laps that had to be run ending any possibility that George Jr. would be short of fuel, it was then the RCR development driver’s race to lose.
And lose it, he would.
George ended up spinning with only seven laps to go, allowing Bill Elliott’s development driver Casey Roderick to take the lead for good. It was another incident in dispute, with George’s crew remarking that they should have been in victory lane. Others with a view of the track’s back turns remarked that George slowed far more than he should have, leaving Roderick with no way to avoid contact with the No. 31.
In the end, Roderick made a point to apologize to George for making contact with him in victory lane, commenting that it wasn’t the way he wanted to win his first ARCA race. Nonetheless, George didn’t take too kindly to being bumped from the top spot, forcing his way through the crowd to confront Roderick after his obligatory photo shoot in victory lane. Though there was no physical confrontation, George made his displeasure known to Roderick, refusing to shake his hand and warning him to watch his back the next time he took to the racetrack.
As the fans and haulers streamed out of the New Jersey Motorsports Park, the three road ringers were left to wonder what could have been. No top-10 finishes. Ground lost in the title chase. And the knowledge that it would be a long six months before ARCA returns to a road course.
Both Brent and George Jr. fell in the points standings as a result of their disappointing Sundays. The same can be said for Marks, who over the last two weeks has fallen from first to fourth in points. The loss in ground was compounded for Marks, who knew full well that his team needed a strong run to set the tone for a title chase that’s playing right into Frank Kimmel‘s hands, with two short tracks and two dirt tracks coming in the next five races.
“This race comes at a perfect time for us because we’re coming off a disappointing finish at Berlin,” Marks said before qualifying on Saturday. “It’s an opportunity for us to gain max points on the weekend, for us to score a pole, lead laps and get a win, to take back a lot of those points we lost.”
Marks accomplished two of those three. But he, just as his fellow road ringers, came up short this Sunday. And while they found adversity too much to overcome, wily veteran Kimmel snuck in a top-five finish and took the points lead.
Road course, short track, wherever; some things never change in the ARCA Racing Series.