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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

ARCA Racing Series Breakdown: Zomongo 200 at Michigan

Though the No. 28 team had to weather several late-race restarts, it was obvious early that Sheldon Creed’s first win was going to come at Michigan. Creed, tied for the ARCA Racing Series lead in top-five finishes heading into Friday’s race, took the lead on lap 37 and didn’t relinquish it, at one point leading the event by the full length of Michigan’s vast front straightaway. And though Riley Herbst put on a spirited charge at the final restart with just under 15 laps to go, Creed rode off into the sunset to a comfortable nine-second margin of victory. Herbst, Michael Self, Gus Dean and Joe Graf Jr. rounded out the top five.

Creed’s performance, while not unexpected, completely overwhelmed the ARCA field, with multiple drivers and teams resigned to running for second even with nearly half the race remaining. Herbst’s No. 18 team reached that conclusion mid-race, with the driver himself noting around lap 68 that he had nothing for leader Creed. The same could be heard from Quinn Houff’s No. 98, which despite being amongst the fastest cars on the longer run, stated that even running the white line on both ends of the track would not allow them to catch the No. 28.

Creed’s first career win, coupled with a pedestrian 11th-place finish for MDM Motorsports teammate Zane Smith, propelled his No. 28 back atop the ARCA Racing Series point standings. Defending race winner Brandon Jones won the pole and led the first four laps of the event, but dropped through the field after the race’s first caution before being parked with overheating issues, ending a consecutive race-win streak for MDM’s No. 12 team.

The Good

Given how close Sheldon Creed has been to winning throughout the 2018 season, there should be no surprise that the No. 28 team wanted to be emphatic in scoring that first win. By lap 41, the consensus was that the entire field was concerned about the speed the No. 28 had on the restarts, and that concern didn’t go away on the long run. The No. 28 was absolutely dominant Friday, leading 63 laps and gapping the field on every restart. And now that Creed, who has been the most consistent driver on the ARCA tour this year, has the monkey off his back, watch out. 

Gus Dean proved to be a fixture in the top five through the second half of Friday’s race in what was Win-Tron Racing’s best performance on a downforce track this season. Though Dean nearly lost his car in Turn 2 around lap 96 and only saved it thanks to contact with Quin Houff (eight wheels are better than four), this was Dean’s most convincing effort since his gut-filled drive at Daytona with a damaged car, his best result of 2018, and the first time he has posted consecutive top 10 finishes since DuQuoin and Salem last fall.

Riley Herbst went three for three during the stretch of ARCA running companion on NASCAR’s oval circuit, finishing second for his third consecutive top-five finish. Herbst, along with Houff, was one of only two cars that seemed capable of maintaining the pace of race winner Creed on the long run, but more importantly sounded much more confident and in sync with his race team on Friday; Herbst and team were in constant communication, as well as actively tracking voltage and fan usage, as the team has suffered through electrical failures early in the year. Sitting a distant but manageable third in points with a visit to Madison, a track with no NASCAR affiliation in recent memory coming up, this Friday will be a true test of just how much progress the No. 18 team has made.

Now that he’s been mentioned several times, a shout out to Quin Houff for a showing far stronger than his eighth-place finish shows. Houff demonstrated visible progress in handling the racing line at Michigan and getting faster on the long run, moving from his ninth-place starting spot into the top five and setting himself up to contend for the win with Creed and Herbst on the final restart. That contention wasn’t meant to be, as Houff got hit by Gus Dean exiting Turn 2 inside of five laps to go and was unable to recover from the lost momentum lost. Having said that, Houff arguably made more progress as a driver than anyone else in Friday’s field. A job well done.

Michael Self’s third-place finish was his fourth top five in five ARCA starts this season. Will Rodgers rebounded from a poor showing at Pocono to finish a career-best sixth. Leilani Munter kept her nose clean and benefitted from last race yellows to finish on the lead lap in ninth, her best career finish on a downforce track.

The Bad

Back from sports hernia surgery, Natalie Decker’s streak of races with an on-track incident continued, and this time the incident came before the first turn of the first lap. It was unclear from my vantage point whether Decker and Max Tullman made contact or if Decker simply cut a left rear tire (Michigan’s pit road has terrible views, so I had retreated to the grandstands only to be craning over a large bachelor party crowd of Natalie Decker fans), but the end result was Decker spinning into the infield asphalt. The incident left Decker with damaged crush panels under the left rear of the car, which translated into driving with a parachute for the rest of the day. Decker would complete 93 of the 100 laps in finishing 15th.

Outside of Sheldon Creed’s nearly perfect race, it was otherwise a disappointing day for MDM Motorsports. Zane Smith and team were factors early but faded as the race went out, finding themselves out of contention for good following a lap 74 caution where they were caught on the wrong side of a short-pitting strategy. The end result was the first finish outside the top 10 the No. 41 has had since Daytona. Chase Purdy didn’t even have a short-term run as a contender, struggling with handling woes early and often. Under the race’s second yellow around lap six, the team made adjustments involving more than five turns in the rear of the car, prompting the crew to tell Purdy “trust me, you’ll feel this.” Purdy felt it all right, as he soon pitted under green on lap 15 for further adjustments. The No. 8 team finished the day four laps off the pace in 13th, Purdy’s worst career finish that didn’t end in a retirement.

Dave Maden’s return to his home track didn’t go according to plan, as following a restart around lap 81 the No. 63 got sideways on turn 2 exit and ended up nosing into the interior backstretch retaining wall. Mader’s race ended in 18th with the wreck.

The Ugly

Though Friday’s 200-miler is as short a competitive distance as will be run on the MIS oval this year, mechanical woes were the story of the day, at a surprising level for ARCA competition. Polesitter Brandon Jones saw his campaign for a third straight win at the track derailed with overheating issues that could not be solved by adding water in the pits. Bret Holmes came to pit road around lap 43 with an engine that wouldn’t pull down the straightaways; he would retire less than 10 laps later, the first DNF for the No. 23 team this year that didn’t involve a crash at a plate track. Jesse Iwuji’s debut at Michigan was shortlived, as on a lap 4 restart Iwuji’s car “blew a gearbox” as the driver described it, with the distressed No. 34 causing a caution two laps later after being unable to roll back to pit road. Lastly, Morgan Baird’s day ended 33 laps short of the finish with clutch issues. Between those instances and Decker’s first laps woes, Friday’s race was suspenseful at times for all the wrong reasons.

Underdog

David Sear was the most demonstrative and excitable driver to pass through the handshake during driver intros on Friday, and he had good reason to have a skip in his step. Behind the wheel of Kimmel Racing’s No. 69, Sear scored a career-best 14th place finish in his 13th ARCA start, delivering only the second top 15 finish of the year for the No. 69 team. 

The Final Word

  • The loss of Fox Sports coverage for the MIS ARCA race in favor of MavTV coverage left some fans scrambling in the stands Friday afternoon; I was approached by multiple fans asking how to find the broadcast channel on their scanners. In scanning the entire race, I heard not a single transmission from the broadcast booth, which when coupled with a lackluster video presentation on ISM vision, made this race surprisingly unfriendly for fans without familiarity with the ARCA ranks to follow. I won’t pretend to understand the dynamics of balancing Fox and MavTV coverage from the same track on the same weekend. And maybe it was a situation where Racing Electronics didn’t include the broadcast channel in the ARCA programming tab for the weekend. However, if neither of those events are responsible for the radio silence, NASCAR needs to take note of this wrinkle with their new acquisition, especially at one of their own tracks.

Up Next: The ARCA Racing Series gets off the superspeedways and back to the bullrings, with a trip to the Madison International Speedway in Wisconsin this Friday night. Coverage is set to start at 9 p.m. ET on MavTV. 

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