NASCAR Race Weekend Central

ARCA Racing Series Breakdown: Menard’s 200 at Toledo

The fans in attendance for Sunday’s ARCA race at Toledo Speedway could be forgiven if they weren’t sure at any point what lap they were watching. And not just because of a blown transformer on Benore Road that left the track without a working scoreboard.

Rather, Zane Smith, who stormed to victory over teammate Chase Purdy inside of 10 laps to go with a three-wide pass of Purdy and a lapped car exiting Turn 2, made a habit of making last-lap moves all through Sunday’s 200 laps. On no less than three occasions did Smith make spectacular shows of passing lapped cars, be it an early move using asphalt from the quarter mile on the frontstretch to get under Brad Smith’s No. 48, or a move worthy of a race win on lap 142 that saw Smith’s No. 41 sideswipe underneath Mike Basham’s lapped No. 34, bounce off then-leader Chandler Smith’s No. 20 and sending the No. 41 to a lead that it seemed would be insurmountable.

That is, until arguably the wildest three laps of the ARCA season to date. In a span of three circuits leading up to the race’s final caution inside of 35 laps to go, the No. 55 of Eddie Fatscher cut a tire but avoided hitting the wall, the No. 18 of Riley Herbst came to a stop on pit road with his second dead battery of the afternoon, Sheldon Creed’s No. 28 cut a right front tire, Natalie Decker’s No. 25 cut a right front tire, and Chandler Smith, running third at the time, cut a tire after visibly hitting debris on the frontstretch. 

The ensuing caution sent the leaders (all three of them) to the pits. Though Zane Smith’s No. 41 came out first, Purdy capitalized on a minor slip by the No. 41 on the lap 175 restart to take the point. Like he did all race long, Zane Smith, however, used lapped traffic to his advantage, and after seeing Purdy momentarily get out of the gas exiting turn 2 to avoid the lapped No. 11 of Rick Clifton, Smith went in the middle of three wide and rocketed to his third win of the ARCA Racing Series season. Purdy finished second, followed by Joe Graf Jr, Chandler Smith and Bret Holmes rounding out the top five. 

Zane Smith leaves Toledo having taken the points lead from teammate Creed. Chandler Smith in winning the pole on Saturday became the first driver in ARCA Racing Series history to win the pole in each of their first three starts.

The Good

If there was any doubt of Zane Smith being the favorite for the ARCA Racing Series crown this year after winning at Nashville and Talladega, those doubts are dead following his performance at Toledo. Smith battled back on the long run after fading from his second-place starting position in the early laps, and also proved adept on the short run in recovering from a botched lap 175 restart to take the win from teammate Chase Purdy. Most importantly, Smith’s ability to work lapped traffic at will won him Sunday’s race, and with the ARCA tour still having trips to a number of bullrings left on the slate, those skills will have plenty of chances to score more trophies in 2018. If Smith and the No. 41 prove strong on the intermediates this weekend at Charlotte, this title race may become a rout.

Sunday’s race marked the first this season that Joe Graf Jr. was not using a support device to get around the garage with his broken left foot, and as he has been healing through the spring, his results behind the wheel are improving. After finishing runner-up at Talladega in the closest finish in ARCA history despite a bumpy day behind the wheel, Graf turned in a performance Sunday that was composed and steady, with nary a scratch to be seen on his No. 77 post-race. That’s a marked departure from his earlier short track outings this spring, and that composure produced a career-best short track finish. Chad Bryant Racing has signed him to drive the rest of the 2018 calendar, and that move was a good one if Sunday was a benchmarker.

Off the lead lap, Brandon Grasso’s sixth-place result was his best of the 2018 season. Travis Braden’s eighth-place run was his second consecutive top 10, the first time he’s posted such results driving for AJ Fike’s team and the first time he’s done so in any ride since 2016. And Thad Moffitt’s recovery from a mid-race spin that got him stuck in the Turn 4 grass to finish 10th yielded a career-best finish.

Lastly, despite gray skies and drizzle all day, the grandstands were nearly full on Sunday. 

The Bad

It’s kind of hard to describe a day where two of the four team cars finish in the top 10 as a bad day, but Venturini Motorsports has to be disappointed leaving ARCA’s home track. Chandler Smith won his third pole and kept Venturini five for five in winning poles this season, led 97 laps and finished a career-best fourth, but lost a legitimate shot for the win in the closing laps when he cut a right front tire; the team kept him out on track under yellow with the flat to keep track position, but doing wore out his sway bar and left his car visibly struggling to turn in the final 25 lap run. Natalie Decker did finish seventh, but did so off the lead lap and endured on-track incident for the third consecutive race, spinning teammate Eddie Fatscher exiting turn 4 only five laps into the race. Fatscher’s debut with the team was eventful to put it lightly, as ten laps after being spun by Decker, Fatscher made heavy contact with Carson Hovecar’s No. 35, smashing his hood upward and leaving the No. 55 mired in traffic for the rest of the day. And that leaves Christian Eckes, whose hopes for a repeat of his magic win at Salem went out the window less than halfway into the race, when a tight condition eventually led to a blown right front tire and hard contact with the Turn 2 wall. Eckes would not finish the race.

Gus Dean’s tough-luck run in 2018 continued Sunday, as a lap 92 incident that also damaged the No. 12 of Harrison Burton and the No. 28 of Sheldon Creed ended with Dean’s No. 32 nose-first into the backstretch wall. He finished 20th. Speaking of Burton, the defending Toledo race winner saw a strong showing in the first 70 laps of Sunday’s race go out the window on a restart around lap 80, with teammate Sheldon Creed nosing him out second place on the restart and dropping him deep into traffic before the incident with Dean. Burton rebounded to finish ninth but was never again a factor in this race.

Will Kimmel completed only 19 laps before parking the No. 69 in the infield grass. Never a good sight to see a Kimmel start-and-park in ARCA’s backyard.

Grant Enfinger’s latest return to his old ARCA stomping grounds went very well for the first 100+ laps of the event. Enfinger, who qualified outside the top 10 after rain Saturday washed out his team’s mock run practice for qualifying, worked his way from 12th to third by the halfway mark of Sunday’s race. However, soon after a restart around lap 110, Enfinger’s car began smoking out the rear end, and within six laps had dropped outside the top 10. Though the No. 78 car would stay on track until the closing laps, the car was clearly down on power, and ended with Enfinger coasting down pit road after the team advised him to stop cooking the engine. Enfinger’s 12th place finish was his worst in an ARCA short track race since Toledo back in 2015.

The Ugly

The pairing of Riley Herbst and Bootie Barker has been disappointing all season long, and after Sunday it now also appears snakebitten. Herbst, who radioed early in the race about his battery amps appearing low, ended up pitting around lap 70 under yellow while the pits were closed to attempt to change the battery. Mired in traffic as a result, Herbst would then suffer a stuck throttle entering turn 3, smashing the front end of his car in an incident that caused more damage to Burton’s No. 12 and left Moffitt’s No. 46 in the mud. Herbst was vocally upset about the situation over the radio, and even more so after the team sent him back on track without a front hood. Around lap 120, Herbst was heard telling the team “the throttle is still sticking, power steering is gone and I can’t see out of this thing.” Herbst would eventually have to pit again later in the going for another dead battery (based on what radio chatter I was able to intercept) and finished 19th, 45 laps off the pace. Though third in the standings leaving Toledo, the fact that a Joe Gibbs Racing entry has been completely outclassed in every event run so far this season should be a major cause for concern.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Brad Smith. Toledo Speedway paused for a moment of silence prior to the invocation Sunday afternoon, recognizing that the Menard’s 200 marked the first time since 1998 that an ARCA race had been run without the participation of James Harvey Hylton and his son Tweet. Brad Smith and team responded in kind, going the distance for the first time in the 2018 campaign, completing 185 of the 200 laps and placing 16th. That Smith was a complete non-factor as lapped traffic in a race where lappers were at times so visible is a worthy accomplishment for the Hylton team given their resources, and worthy of praise after a trying few weeks.

The Final Word

  • Though only 23 cars took the green flag for Sunday’s race, only two of those entries start-and-parked the 200-lap event. I’m all for lower car counts if they’re all actually racing. Also of note, only three cars that started Sunday were the old steel-body models…and two of the teams that started those cars do have at least one composite-body car in their stables. In short, the bottom of ARCA’s car count may be here, and that’s a good thing.
  • Having said that, it’s kind of ironic that both Don Radebaugh and Ken Schrader made a point during pre-race to say that despite the lower car counts, the field was more competitive than ever…and then the race ended with only four cars on the lead lap. 
  • Of note, 2014 ARCA champion Mason Mitchell and 2017 champion Austin Theriault were at Toledo on Sunday…as spotters. Mitchell may be keeping busy with team ownership, but to see such recent champions on the sidelines with nothing to drive isn’t the best marketing for the ARCA Racing Series.
  • Wishful thinking I’m sure, but with NASCAR acquiring ARCA here’s hoping we get some more touring events at this track. With its low retaining walls and grandstands heaped on top of the racing surface, the sense of speed and fan sightlines at Toledo Speedway are hands down some of the best in the country. As much clamor as there is for a clone of Richmond if building a new track, I’d take another Toledo half-mile any day of the week. Though a pit-road that wasn’t hidden from the grandstands would be a welcome improvement.

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