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(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

ARCA Breakdown: Music City 200

Though he didn’t end up winning the pole, Zane Smith emerged from qualifying as ready to race as anyone in the field, exclaiming repeatedly over the radio that the team’s adjustments from practice had made a “night and day” difference.

Going from day to night did suit the No. 41 team just fine as Smith ran in the top five and took the race lead by halfway. Though Sheldon Creed managed to steal the lead from Smith on the race’s final restart on lap 168 after a debris caution (a legitimate one, the metal on the track was visible to the naked eye from the stands), Smith surged back to the front on lap 180 and never looked back, scoring his first career ARCA Racing Series win.

MDM Motorsports team swept the podium, with Creed finishing second and Harrison Burton third. Daytona winner Michael Self faded to fourth during the race’s final run, and pole-sitter Chandler Smith rounded out the top 5.

Though the bitter cold temperatures in Nashville made qualifying a bit hazardous for a number of drivers who struggled to get grip in their tires, the 200-lapper was a welcome relief from the carnage of Daytona, and from the slugfest last year that saw 11 yellow flags, slowed by only 5 cautions; none of those involved serious crash damage for cars in the field.

Creed’s second-place finish has him in second in points behind Michael Self, but lead among drivers competing for the ARCA title in 2018. Creed leads Natalie Decker by 65 points heading to Salem.

The Good

MDM Motorsports didn’t steal the headlines after Venturini Motorsports’ newest 15-year-old driver topped the practice charts and won the pole Saturday afternoon, but they dominated where it counts, the finishing order. Zane Smith won his first career race with a composed 200-lap performance that never saw him out of touch with the top 5, wrestling the win away (cleanly) from teammate Sheldon Creed, who has emerged the points leader now that ARCA’s de factor “regular season” has begun. Lastly, though he’s not racing for the ARCA crown, short track ace Harrison Burton (who won the opening K&N East race at New Smyrna) rebounded from starting at the rear of the field for failing tech inspection twice before qualifying to finish third. With two of the next three races coming on the short tracks (Salem and Toledo), the MDM squad seems primed to build on their current points lead.

Speaking of Venturini Motorsports’ newest 15-year-old, hats off to Chandler Smith for a stellar ARCA debut. Smith not only won the pole, he smoked the old track record by more than two tenths of a second on a day that saw more than half the field tail-happy in qualifying trying to find grip in the 37-degree weather and snow flurries. From there, Smith led the first 50 laps of the race and kept his nose clean all night to score a top 5 finish. Even more telling was the maturity displayed on the team radio throughout; Smith lost the lead under the first caution of the race, and immediately took responsibility for making an error on pit entry that cost the team the lead. A job well done for the #20 car.

Though the cautions didn’t fall the way he needed them to, Michael Self had the best long run car in the field Saturday night. 40 laps into a run, there was nobody on track faster than the No. 55 car. The problem is, after restarting on lap 147 and taking the lead from the No. 77 (which was on older tires), Self fell victim to front-runners with faster short run cars. A lap 161 debris caution effectively ended the No. 55’s shot a win, and Self’s ARCA win streak at two. Self appeared as ready as any driver in the field for a promotion to the next level. Venturini Motorsports would do well to explore getting this guy into a car for a full season.

Despite having to restart on lap 147 with older tires than every other car on the lead lap, Tyler Dippel stayed out of trouble for the last 53 laps and made a race of it with the leaders, bringing Chad Bryant’s No. 22 car home in sixth, his best ARCA finish on a short track since 2015.

The Bad

After being one of the myriad victims of crash damage in Daytona overtime, Travis Braden and the No. 27 team had to be looking forward to getting back to the bullrings. By lap 139 of Saturday’s race, the tone on the radio could best be described as exasperated, as the team found itself three laps down, with even a top 10 out of the question. Given Braden’s prowess on the short tracks, finishing five laps down in 15th would be disappointing enough. But in the bigger picture, it’s the continuation of a surprising trend since Braden moved from entering his own No. 01 entries to driving full time for AJ Fike’s No. 27 team, his average finish in ARCA competition has slipped from 7.0 to 12.8, scoring two top 10s in his time in the No. 27 (he scored five in the same number of starts in his own equipment).

Though Riley Herbst finished fifth in points in his debut ARCA campaign last season, such results in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry were underwhelming, even disappointing. There’s a reason the team brought veteran Bootie Barker in this season to run the No. 18 car.

However, that combination proved completely ineffective at Nashville. Herbst, who finished in the top 10 at the Fairgrounds in his first ARCA start last year, started well, moving from the back of the field after an engine change to running in the top 10 by lap 27. But come a lap 57 restart, the No. 18 car mixed it up with strategy, and dropped like a rock.

By lap 103, Herbst was reporting handling woes every other lap, with the spotter having to confirm to the driver that the tires were still up. By night’s end, Herbst was three laps down in 13th. In a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. In an ARCA race with 26 starters. And at the home track of associate sponsor ORCA coolers. Enough said.

Even being in the frigid grandstands, I enjoyed the show that the Fairgrounds put on Saturday night. The racing was good, and the fans that turned out deserve credit for being hardy, seeing as it was dipping below 30 degrees by the time the checkered flag flew. Having said that, the crowd was visibly down for this race from my last visit in 2016. Not unexpected, but also not a prime set of circumstances for an ARCA race outside the series’ Midwestern footprint; ARCA never returned to Palm Beach International Raceway after the 2010 race there was run in a literal monsoon in front of a weather-depressed crowd (former ARCA racer Bryan Silas estimated that crowd as less than 100 people). Here’s hoping history outweighs nature.

The Ugly

As was previously mentioned, the extreme cold made qualifying an ugly affair, with lots of drivers struggling even on warm-up laps to keep their cars under them. For 79-year-old Wayne Peterson, it proved to be too much, as he spun out the No. 0 car and slammed the interior frontstretch wall before taking time. While Peterson walked away, the wreck was a double whammy for his underfunded team; not only did the No. 0 car end up not starting, as the team didn’t have a backup car, the car that he wrecked was the team’s composite body car in the same paint scheme that ran at Daytona. With Talladega only three weeks away, here’s hoping the team can get the car fixed Peterson was unable to drive it away with the damage it sustained.

NYU student Joe Graf Jr. went from hero to zero in the eyes of his No. 77 team in a span of 25 laps. With strategy calls early in the race forcing the team to stay out on old tires though every other lead lap team had just pitted for tires, Graf got a stellar restart on lap 147 and stayed in complete control, holding the lead until lap 149 and battling the leaders on old rubber while staying in the top 5 until a debris caution on lap 161.

On that restart on lap 168, Graf missed a shift and apparently damaged the car, as he plummeted through the field. With the spotter and crew repeatedly asking for updates, Graf reported over a lap later that he could not keep the car in fourth gear. The team absolutely blew a gasket, spewing profanity while demanding that Graf hold the car in gear with one hand while continuing to race. Graf insisted he could not keep the car in gear even by hand, and pitted on lap 178, only to have his team tell him to drive through pit road and refuse to service the car.

Graf was eventually instructed to put the car in third gear to limp home to a 16th-place finish. A missed shift does suggest driver error, but I’ve personally never heard such vitriol from a team towards a rookie driver at any level of major league stock car racing. Not on public radio waves at least.

Final Notes

  • With 27 cars expected to attempt qualifying for Saturday’s race, the fact that five of them failed to take time is a sizable chunk of the field. And when one further considers that the cars that didn’t take time included heavy hitters such as Riley Herbst’s #18, Harrison Burton’s #12, and Thad Moffitt’s No. 46 (the No. 18 changed engines, while the No. 12 and No. 46 failed inspection more than once per RacingReference’s message boards), the question has to be asked…are teams just skewing qualifying in an age of short fields? Inspection technicalities have been plaguing race teams across all levels of big league stock car racing, but these continual failures show that teams are pretty much throwing qualifying out the window. In the end, even though ARCA does actually award bonus points for qualifying, there’s little impetus for teams with powerful cars to spend time developing a qualifying setup when they know they’re in the field and can carve through the backmarkers at will. ARCA doesn’t need a stage racing fix like NASCAR adopted because their races are shorter, but it may be time to think radically about making qualifying matter again.
  • Though Natalie Decker’s 11th place finish wasn’t flashy, hearing her input over the radio confirmed just how much effort the girl is putting into this race season, she was continually engaged with her team and detailing what she felt with her car in detail. What I found concerning on the team radio was the pace laps pep talk repeatedly telling her not to take crap on track. Unless I’m missing something, Decker is not running into that type of issue on track, she finished top five at Daytona, where drafting partners are a must, for crying out loud. It’s important to fire drivers up, but emphasizing to rookies not to take crap when they’re still making mistakes over which brake blowers need to be turned on and off (the No. 25 car did figure that out in the second half of the race) is putting the cart before the horse. Stock car racing doesn’t need another Danica.
  • The promoter staff at the Fairgrounds told the crowd during pre-race intros that it would be over his dead body that the race track be closed…translation, there are growing concerns that the race track may close (the Fairgrounds was recently named as the site for a new Major League Soccer stadium to be built). The current renderings put the stadium next to the race track, not over it, but with Nashville’s mayorship now in transition, there are concerns that the track’s future may be back in jeopardy again. More to come on that later this month on Frontstretch.

Next Race

After two races in two months in the South, ARCA heads back to its home turf for a Sunday afternoon show at Salem Speedway on April 22, the track which has hosted more ARCA races than any other. TV coverage will be available on MAVTV for the few who have it.

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3 comments

  1. My toes were freezing but enjoyed every minute of it. I go to as many of the “big” races as I can. I tell my friends it’s real racing.

  2. Made the trek from northern Illinois to see a race at Nashville for the first time. The race was very very good. And this post race report is one of the best I’ve seen in a while from anyone. However I disagree with the qualifying statement. Riley Herbst missed a shift in practice and obviously had to change the engine. And Harrison Burton and Thad Moffitt weren’t particularly good in practice, which is very surprising for Burton so I think they made a whole lot of changes that took awhile.

  3. Cold as a witches teat. Both the CARS (old procup series) and ARCA put on a great show. Tends to happen when tracks lend themselves to good racing. So happy am I, thinking about making the 6 hour trek to Salem, Indiana for the next ARCA race.

    nascrap has soiled the spirit of racing. Go back to your roots, yall, local tracks / local series / and ‘lower’ end national touring series. It’s like being 12 years old again…