Venturini Motorsports’ No. 15 called it a “serious ass-whuppin” when the checkered flag flew Friday night at Madison International Speedway, and that’s exactly what it was.
After winning his fourth ARCA Racing Series pole in as many starts, besting the field by three tenths of a second, 15-year-old Chandler Smith finally scored his first career win, leading the last 74 laps and winning by more than a full straightaway over second-place finisher Zane Smith. Points leader Sheldon Creed, Chase Purdy and Gus Dean rounded out the top five. Toni Breidinger, the all-time winningest female driver in USAC racing history, finished two laps down in 10th in her ARCA debut.
Smith’s win came over a field of 19 cars, the shortest field to start an ARCA Racing Series event since 1996. Despite the small car count, lapped traffic proved treacherous throughout the evening, as the narrow groove at Madison failed to expand over the course of 200 laps.
One storyline that didn’t pan out was the potential for tire issues; numerous drivers including Riley Herbst and Bret Holmes had fiery brake rotors for the entire second half of the race, though no General Tire failures were experienced due to melted beads.
By way of a hard-fought third-place finish, Creed maintains a 55-point lead over MDM Motorsports teammate Smith as ARCA heads to St. Louis this Friday night for 150 miles at Gateway Motorsports Park.
For as much good as Chandler Smith has put on display during his short tenure in the ARCA ranks, Friday night was a true clinic. That Smith won the pole was no surprise, but to beat the entire field by three tenths of a second surprised even the driver, who immediately complained of being tight as soon as he returned to the pits from his pole-winning run.
The No. 15 team also seemed to be doomed for a repeat of misfortune at Toledo when Smith had a right rear tire go down on lap 36. Chandler Smith, likely remembering how riding on the rim cost him a shot at a Toledo win late, begged to pit while his team instructed him to ride as long as he could. That call paid off when the yellow came out two laps later and from there, Smith took the lead for good on lap 126 and was never seriously challenged after that. The rest of the ARCA field should consider themselves lucky that Smith is as young as he is.
MDM Motorsports literally scored as good a finish as they could without winning Friday’s race, with Zane Smith, Creed and Purdy finishing 2-3-4 in the final running order. All three performances were of note. Smith led a number of laps, Purdy scored his third consecutive top five on a short track and Creed rebounded from a terrible 12th-place qualifying effort, a lap 53 spin and a scuffle on-track with Joe Graf Jr. to score his fourth consecutive top-five finish and maintain the points lead.
Dean was the first-place car fielded by a team other than Venturini or MDM. His fifth-place finish marked three consecutive top-10 finishes for the No. 32 Win-Tron Racing team. After a rocky start to the campaign, the No. 32 team has found consistency. Given their current gap of more than 400 points from the championship lead, however, this team will have to start winning during the summer stretch if they’re going to factor into the title race this year.
Natalie Decker’s return to Wisconsin was marked by tons of fans in Decker gear in the stands, her No. 25 car being featured on the official event t-shirt and by the driver’s best overall effort since a top five in the season opener at Daytona. Decker, who avoided early race trouble for the first time in months, took advantage of the field stringing out over the long runs of the final 100 laps to finish on the lead lap in sixth, a career-best short track finish.
Travis Braden faded with soft brakes in the second half of Friday’s race, but shocked literally the entire ARCA garage with a second-place qualifying effort, a career-best.
Graf’s night got off to a bad start early, as on Lap 8 his No. 77 spun in Turn 4 after contact with Purdy. Purdy’s team was adamant that Graf slammed the door on the No. 8 driver, while Graf’s team insisted that Purdy got into turn three and four too hot and clipped the apron grass. Nonetheless, the spin mired the No. 77 in traffic that they would never get out of.
Graf’s team observed over the course of Friday’s race that the braking technique used by their driver, which involved backing up the corners early, would likely prove effective at every track but Madison, as the Wisconsin paper-clip requires drivers to stay off the throttle through much of turns three and four, no matter their entry. Graf’s 12th-place finish was his worst short track result since Nashville in April.
The momentum that Herbst and crew chief Bootie Barker strung together while running ARCA’s first superspeedway sprint carried over for the first half of Friday’s race. Using tire strategy, Herbst was storming through the field and a fixture in the top five in his No. 18 car, a place the team had not been during ARCA’s earlier short track races this year.
By lap 95, Herbst was running second and a threat on the long run. Then came a lap 114 restart, which saw the No. 18 fall outside the top 10 eight laps later. It was never made clear what the issue was on the team radio, but the team suffered a mechanical failure under the car that forced the team to make adjustments under the hood under a lap 133 yellow. The adjustments allowed Herbst to limp home 13th, seven laps down.
Barker has obviously found something that works with Herbst, as he was far more communicative with his driver this race than in previous short track outings, but the snakebit season continues for this bunch.
Friday night was one to forget for the Basham family. While it’s always a pleasure to see journeyman Darrell Basham in the starting grid, seeing him park the Kimmel Racing No. 69 after only one lap was not pleasant to watch, both in seeing his first start of 2018 being a start-and-park and to see a team competing under the Kimmel Racing banner reduced to said effort. The night didn’t end much better for Mike Basham driving the family’s No. 34, as he fell off the pace on lap 143 and parked for the night well short of the finish.
- The ARCA Racing Series is in the midst of a heavy summer slog of 11 consecutive race weekends, and for numerous drivers, there are suddenly apparent health considerations to make. Decker, as reported by arcaracing.com, had to spend time in her motorhome after becoming overheated during practice, and was heard numerous times on the radio during Friday’s race speaking about “conserving energy” on a day that saw the thermometer hit 90 degrees (remember, Decker is only a few weeks off hernia surgery). Meanwhile, Graf, who spent the early parts of the 2018 campaign driving with a broken foot, was apparently suffering from knee pains that impacted his ability to use the brakes in his car Friday night. The team noted on the auxiliary radio that since he used a scooter extensively with his broken foot, his knee is still adjusting to being upright again. Something to note for both drivers, as the summer heat… and the need for brakes… isn’t going anywhere this summer.
- The battle between Creed and Smith atop the ARCA standings remains tight, but the margins get big quickly…Herbst in third is 285 points, or more than a full race out, with fourth-place Braden nearly 400 points out. Couple that with fields that continue to get shorter as the season progresses and it gets precarious quickly for Herbst, Purdy and Dean as full-time drivers expected to contend for the crown in 2018. Even if all three of them continue to run in the top five as they did for much of Friday, without larger fields of cars to spread points out, even poor races by leaders Creed and Smith might not offer enough space to make up points over the later parts of the ARCA season.
The ARCA Racing Series returns to Gateway Motorsports Park for the first time since 2007 for the Papa Nicholas Coffee 150. The race goes green at 9 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2.