Just like ARCA’s first plate race of 2018, Friday’s General Tire 200 at Talladega took multiple green-white-checkers to decide. The only difference this time… the finish was much closer. The closest in ARCA history for that matter.
After spending nearly the entire 2.66-mile final lap leaning on each other, it was Zane Smith that emerged with an inch-wide victory over Joe Graf Jr., scoring his second career ARCA victory. Polesitter Michael Self came home third, followed by points leader Sheldon Creed and XFINITY Series regular Josh Williams.
Though the race was marred by numerous accidents as is typical at Talladega, the ARCA field, fortunately, dodged a true Big One on Friday. There were, however, several severe accidents that took out local(ish) drivers Chase Purdy and Bret Holmes while causing extensive damage to their cars; both drivers walked away, though Purdy was seen visibly limping to the ambulance after his crash.
Though Venturini Motorsports dominated the early morning, taking the top four positions in practice as well as the pole (they’ve scored all four ARCA poles so far in 2018), it was the MDM Motorsports brigade that proved to be the most influential cars in the field, combining to lead nearly half of the 87 laps run. When the dust settled, as well as dusk, Creed maintained the points lead, with teammate Smith in second and Purdy fifth in the standings.
After losing the points lead at Salem thanks to scheduling limitations, Michael Self picked up right where he left off in ARCA competition, scoring the pole at Talladega and leading 21 of the first 40 laps. Self’s No. 15 proved so stout in the early going that at least three drivers in the field were heard on team radios communicating in the later going about feeling good about making pit stops because the No. 15 would be in the back as well to push cars forward. Though Self’s Toyota did bog down in the field during the second half of the race, the Daytona winner avoided the chaos at race end to come home third. Despite missing Salem, Self sits tied for sixth in the series’ standings and was truly the “pied piper” in Friday’s field.
MDM Motorsports has made itself a fixture of the “good” section of this feature so far in 2018, and Talladega was no exception. Though Purdy did see his day end short in a violent “racing incident” inside of 10 laps to go, Purdy’s No. 8, along with Creed’s No. 28 and Smith’s No. 41 proved to be movers and shakers from green to checkers, moving lines in multiple grooves on the track and taking all the hardware that mattered. Smith scored his second win in three races, and Creed maintained the points lead.
A special salute to part-time drivers Andy Seuss and Bryan Dauzat, who both persevered through late-race crash damage not only to finish on the lead lap but to finish 10th and 11th respectively; the finishes marked Seuss’ first top 10 since this race a year ago and Dauzat’s career-best.
Bobby Gerhart and Travis Braden both proved adept at survival on Friday, spending much of the race in the middle of the pack only to end their respective top 10 droughts; Gerhart’s eighth-place finish was his best since a seventh at Talladega last year, while Braden’s ninth-place finish made him the hard charger of the race (17 positions better than where he qualified) and marked his first top 10 of the 2018 campaign.
Joe Graf Jr.’s improved results continued for the third race in a row, as he came within inches of victory at Talladega while delivering the best result yet for the Chad Bryant Racing organization. After losing a surefire top 10 at Nashville three weeks ago after missing a shift on a restart, Graf finished 11th at Salem and now delivered a top-five speedway run. That being said…
The way Graf delivered said result was not without incident(s). On lap 19, Graf hooked the rear corner of Natalie Decker’s No. 25 (this was according, however, to the No. 25 team’s radio, and Decker’s tweets late on Friday suggesting her car had shut off on the track may well earn Graf a pass on this one) and sent it hard into the backstretch wall, ending her day. On lap 63, Codie Rohrbaugh could be heard over the team radio threatening to kill the “expletive” hitting him from behind, which from this writer’s vantage point…was Graf’s No. 77. And on lap 75, Graf heavily bumped Bryan Dauzat’s No. 57 entering Turn 1, and again through Turn 1, spinning the No. 57 out of the lead draft. Said the spotter for the No. 57, “their [No. 77’s] spotter said he knows why we’re mad about that one.” They weren’t alone in that camp Friday.
Speaking of Decker’s trouble, both women in the field Friday had days to forget. For Decker, who qualified in the top five, the early race exit left her audibly shaken up on the radio following the wreck, and with a heavily damaged race car for the second time in five days. Though Decker remained fourth in points despite finishing 28th, consistency is proving to be a challenge for Venturini Motorsports’ only full-time entrant in 2018. Her teammate on the day, Leilani Munter, had a visibly fast race car but didn’t seem to grasp how to use it, as repeated instructions from the team to suck up closer to cars in the pack went seemingly unheeded until Munter went spinning across the infield grass around lap 71, smacking the frontstretch wall and leaving the No. 20 to limp home 22nd.
The only harder job than being a woman driver in the field Friday was being a driver that called Alabama home. Bret Holmes had one of the strongest cars in the field during the first half of the race, only to misjudge his approach to pit road under green around lap 46, resulting in a hard head-on crash into the frontstretch wall that left him with a 27th-place DNF. Thomas Praytor’s day ended before it started after taking damage in a Brandon Grasso spin that brought out the first caution of the race; he finished 21st, five laps down. In fact, the only Alabama driver to finish on the lead lap was Dave Mader III in 16th. Even Chase Purdy, who despite being from Mississippi had the state of Alabama on his hood, found trouble in a crash of his own, finishing with a 25th-place DNF. For a track whose fans gave their own the heartiest of the ovations during driver intros, it proved a cruel homecoming.
Brad Smith and the Hylton Motorsports No. 48 team did not take time during practice or during qualifying on Friday, though the car was rolled out to start the race as only 31 teams were present, short of a full field. That the team didn’t even finish the parade laps to run an actual start-and-park is ugly enough, but the way they did it was embarrassing. The team was so unprepared to race that the team’s “pit box” was full of fans… and no equipment. Not even a pit sign. The spotters were heard during pre-race telling Smith what was painted on the pit wall so he’d know where to stop when they parked the car. Not since Joe Ruttman was black-flagged at Rockingham in 2004 for not having a pit crew have I seen something as ridiculous as that in a major stock car race.
Underdog Performer of the Race
On the other side of the spectrum for ARCA’s underfunded squads, Michigan driver Con Nicolopoulos delivered a 12th-place finish in Wayne Peterson Racing’s No. 06 entry. Though Nicolopoulos spent much of the race running as a single car by himself and relied on a lucky dog to get into position to finish where he did, the No. 06 ran the whole race, drafted in a pack during the final closing laps and demonstrated a steady hand when being lapped by the lead pack (just look to Salem last week, that can’t always be taken for granted). Nicolopoulos’ spotter was adamantly praising the job he did Friday, and this writer will echo those sentiments. Of further note, Nicolopoulos’ finish was a career-best and meant that Wayne Peterson’s team finished top 20 in both plate races in 2018.
The Final Word
- Friday was the first time I’ve watched ARCA’s group qualifying for plate races in person, and having seen it I absolutely hate it. Looking at the groups of cars that took to the track, qualifying was as much determined by the cars that a driver took to the track with as what the drivers and crews actually did with them. How it be considered a level qualifying field that sees one group of cars include two Venturini cars, two MDM cars and a Mason Mitchell Motorsports entry, while another group included AJ Fike’s team, a part-time entry, Andy Hillenburg’s No. 11 and Wayne Peterson’s No. 06 (Brad Smith was supposed to be part of this group but couldn’t start) defies logic. Single car qualifying on a plate track is time-consuming, boring and often not representative of the strength of one’s race car, but it at least was a product of what the teams did themselves.
- I made a major error in the Salem write-up last week in not calling to attention that Wayne Hixson’s longtime race team was not present in Indiana, nor in Alabama on Friday. Hixson gave a telling interview on arcaracing.com last week about ending (at least partially) a decade-plus-long presence in the series that’s well worth a read.
- The biggest news of the weekend came Friday morning, when it was announced that NASCAR was purchasing the ARCA Racing Series. ARCA will continue competing business as usual through this year and the 2019 season, though from there it becomes murky. Could the series end up merging with the K&N Pro Series in NASCAR, which is also currently running a spec engine and composite bodies? What does this mean for races run well outside the NASCAR home track program, such as Salem, Toledo, and the dirt tracks in Springfield and DuQuoin? There’s very little known at this point as to where the series will be headed in 2020, but I’d encourage all fans out there to get out and enjoy as many ARCA races as they can over the next 24 months…because ARCA becoming NASCAR robs the series of a major part of what makes it great… that it’s not NASCAR.