The 2012 ARCA Racing Series season went out with a bang, rather than a whimper, last Friday at Kansas Speedway with three separate cars getting airborne during the 99-lap event. Alex Bowman won the battle — his fourth victory of the year — but Chris Buescher won the war, edging out nine-time series champion Frank Kimmel by 75 points en route to his first ARCA championship.
Parity, a running theme in NASCAR had to be a hallmark of this stock car series in 2012. Throughout the 19-race season (a 20th, DuQuoin, was cancelled due to inclement weather and the inability of series officials to reschedule a second time before season’s end) 11 different drivers found Victory Lane, three winning for the first time in the series. Officially, 147 different racers made an event, 10 of whom started every date on the schedule in 2012.
Now, most of the readers of this website are familiar with NASCAR, the sanctioning body to which many ARCA drivers progress (in 2012 alone: Ty Dillon, Tim George, Jr. and Dakoda Armstrong, among others). Less are going to be well-versed in ARCA’s crop of talent, though in terms of entry lists, the two series aren’t completely dissimilar. Of the top 10 in ARCA championship points in 2012, five (Buescher, Kimmel, Bowman, Matt Lofton and Tom Hessert III) have competed in NASCAR, to varying degrees. Part-time drivers such as John Wes Townley, Joey Coulter and Steve Arpin are frequent NASCAR competitors, full-timers elsewhere who still dip their toe in the division where they built their careers.
But there’s plenty more who haven’t received that chance yet.
They will. While ARCA has garnered a reputation for housing its share of less-than-stellar competitors (if you’ve ever heard of the term “ARCA brakes” at a restrictor plate track, you understand), it has also jumpstarted the futures of a fine group of young drivers. Talent like Buescher, Bowman and Kevin Swindell are likely to make it far in NASCAR, and all three have already had a taste — albeit brief — of one of the sport’s top three divisions. Yes, the road may be rough, filled with sponsorship issues and lack of available seats. But the wheel of NASCAR evolution still goes around, however slowly, meaning today’s ARCA winner is well positioned to develop into tomorrow’s Truck Series, Nationwide, or even Sprint Cup star.
In a perfect world, here are a few drivers — who, again, haven’t been in one of NASCAR’s upper echelon series just yet — that deserve a shot, either before the end of 2012 or in 2013 and beyond.
You might have heard of this kid already — and if you haven’t, he’s coming soon to a NASCAR race near you. Poole, 21, completed his first full season of ARCA competition in third place in the overall standings, even leading the points for a time. This year saw Poole score two wins (in back-to-back races, including one of the prestigious Pocono events), eight top 5s and 15 top-10 finishes. Sure, he’s in Venturini Motorsports equipment, so good results are kind of expected, but a win in one’s debut (Salem, 2011) isn’t easy to come by. I could see a team like Turner Motorsports picking him up eventually for a few races — and if that’s the case, expect more of the same success right off the bat. Poole has shown the type of talent you just can’t teach, running away and hiding at a variety of tracks instead of specializing in just one genre.
When Hackenbracht won his first ARCA race at Pocono this past August, his crew chief, Kevin Reed, called the Ohio native the best driver in the series. After two full seasons, it’s tough to call Reed’s declaration totally accurate, but what the 20-year-old has accomplished on a limited budget is quite striking. Hackenbracht totaled five top 5s and 12 top 10s in 2012, along with two poles, that Pocono victory and a fifth-place finish in the standings. With a lack of major sponsorship, there’s always question if the young driver will even make it to the next track, but his results thus far have earned him some sort of opportunity — be it a ride with better funding or a shot at NASCAR.
There’s a reason Erik Jones isn’t in NASCAR right this second. Is it results? Nah. Since his debut at Mobile in March for Venturini Motorsports, Jones has racked up four top-5 finishes in 10 starts and has an equally impressive average start: an even fifth. His Late Model racing results aren’t too shabby, either, with the Michigander getting a win in the Governor’s Cup 200 in 2011. So what’s keeping Jones from taking the next step? Simple: his age. He’s just 16 years old, still in high school with his debut in the series actually coming at 15. In other words, he’s still got two years before he can even enter a car or truck in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions. And once that happens, in mid-2014 look out.
Those who follow ARCA are starting to see a pattern by now. King, 17, is the third driver in this piece to drive at least part-time for Venturini Motorsports, a team that’s either launched or been a stopping point on the careers of Joey Logano, Justin Allgaier and Steve Arpin. Perhaps its equipment is simply superior, but its drivers are often responding to these rides by turning a lot of heads — like King, for example. After a 2011 campaign in which he garnered two poles in three races, the North Carolina resident finished in the top 5 three times and in the top 10 for all but one event in his six-race, 2012 season. He’s shown promise on short tracks especially, raising the question of whether or not he’ll make some sort of NASCAR debut at a track like Martinsville a year from now — after all, he doesn’t turn 18 until August.
Four races. Four top-10 finishes. That’s the 2012 ARCA season of Mitchell, 18, who debuted at his home track of Iowa in July with a finish of 10th, then followed up with an eye-opening fifth at the difficult Indianapolis Raceway Park. The future seems like it’ll continue to get brighter, too for this driver in the coming years. Mitchell’s website indicates plans to compete in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series in 2012, though those have yet to materialize. But Mitchell drives for Eddie Sharp Racing, which fields entries for Cale Gale and Justin Lofton in the latter series and is looking to expand for 2013. So, if a full-time campaign in ARCA is out of the question, I think we’ll be seeing him in NASCAR soon, and if his results so far are any indication, he’ll hold his own.
This year’s Ryan Blaney, who made a few starts in ARCA in 2011. Elliott, son of Sprint Cup champion Bill, scored three top 5s and six top-10 finishes in six races with his family-owned No. 9 in 2012, carrying an average finish of 5.7. Elliott’s season in the K&N East Series, a minor league NASCAR division was even better: one win, eight top 10s and a fourth-place finish in the final standings.
That said, Chase doesn’t have a full ARCA season under his belt, and won’t turn 18 until the end of November 2013 — after the NASCAR season is over. So what does he do until then? I’d love to see Elliott back in a larger capacity, maybe full-time ARCA, in 2013, with an eye toward a NASCAR, top-three series touring debut in 2014. Because come on, you know that of all the drivers listed, he’s the most likely to make it there. Rick Hendrick has been a car owner who’s offered support, and the pipeline is there for the famous son of a future Hall of Fame driver to move up at will.
*Honorable mentions (who, in 2013, may become part of such a list!):* Brandon Davis, Spencer Gallagher, Josh Williams, Mason Mingus, Chad Boat, Tyler Reddick
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