With a thin starting field of only 18 cars taking the green at Michigan, much of Friday’s VizCom 200 played out as Ty Majeski expected, with the field stringing out and green flag runs telling the tale of the day.
It may have been what Majeski expected, but it didn’t end the way he hoped. Using pit strategy and saving fuel over the last half of the race, Majeski took the white flag more than two seconds ahead of a dominant Michael Self, but ran out of fuel in turn 4 coming to the checkers. That left Self to make a last lap pass and drive away to his third win of the 2019 season and his sixth career ARCA Menard’s Series trophy. Majeski would finish second, with Bret Holmes finishing third, the last car on the lead lap.
— VenturiniMotorsports (@VenturiniMotor) June 7, 2019
Self, who won the pole and led 86 of 100 laps Friday, was adamant in praising his Venturini Motorsports crew after sounding off about mechanical failures in post-race remarks following last week’s race in Pocono. Self’s win was the first for Venturini’s flagship No. 25 car at Michigan since 2010.
Several big names in the field found trouble over the course of the event; Riley Herbst suffered engine trouble early in the race after the team had already changed engines after practice Friday morning. Meanwhile, NASCAR Euro racer Myatt Snider made his first ARCA start of the season and ran as high as third before being forced down pit road late with apparent technical woes. Snider still managed to finish eighth, albeit three laps off the pace.
Self’s win allowed him to extend his points lead to 70 over Holmes, whose season-best third place finish allowed him to minimize the damage done in the standings Friday. Travis Braden, Christian Eckes and Joe Graf, Jr. all scored top 10 finishes and remain within 180 markers of the championship lead headed to Madison.
Even for being the points leader, Self was the talk of the ARCA ranks after last Friday’s race at Pocono for an audibly dejected interview about the rash of mechanical issues (Self finished 11th after breaking an axle mid-race). His post-race comments on FOX forced the driver to post a clarifying tweet later in the weekend (though in this writer’s eye such a clarification wasn’t necessary). Fast forward to Michigan, and all of that’s forgotten. Self broke the ARCA track record at Michigan in qualifying, drove away to a 10 second lead before the sole caution of the race on lap 45, and erased more than seven seconds off Majeski’s lead in the closing laps before the No. 22 car ran out of fuel. Self didn’t just win and extend his points lead, he backhanded the entire ARCA field. There’s one title favorite in 2019, and it’s car No. 25.
Having said that, Majeski’s red hot run for Chad Bryant Racing was one corner short of scoring a third trophy in as many races. Crew chief Paul Andrews publicly acknowledged in post-race remarks that the No. 25 car was faster than their Ford Fusion, so the team did what anyone that lacks speed in Michigan does… played the fuel mileage game. And though the team came up a corner short, the composed race that Majeski ran over the final nine laps, maintaining a gap over Self while continuing to save fuel, was a noteworthy effort for such an inexperienced driver. Shame this pairing didn’t come together earlier in the ARCA season.
Holmes remains second in the ARCA standings after scoring a season-best third-place finish. The finish was his first “podium” result since the fall Salem race in 2016, and equalled a career-best result. Holmes has now scored five consecutive top 10 finishes, and as the driver noted in post-race remarks, the addition of Shane Huffman to his family-owned team is bearing serious fruit.
Braden’s sixth-place finish was his best of 2019, and arguably the strongest his No. 27 team has run on an intermediate oval. On days such as these when Venturini Motorsports is overpowering the field, being able to minimize the damage is going to be key for this team to stay in the title hunt, and Braden appears to be making progress on that front.
Hats off to the ARCA Racing Series officials for their handling of C.J. McLaughlin’s spin on the lap 52 restart… namely, for showing restraint, letting the field get clear of the incident and allowing the victim to get going again… all under green (more on that later).
It was a tale of two Fridays for the drivers doing double duty between the ARCA ranks and Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. On the positive side of things was Graf, whose fourth-place finish was his best result of 2019, both on the scoresheet and in terms of performance on the track. While Graf’s aggressive driving on the race track didn’t please everyone…
Can’t believe Graf has the gall to pinch Snider like that on lap 2. No wonder he gets spun so often. #ARCA
— Nick Olsen (@NickOlsen_) June 7, 2019
Graf’s ability to use the side draft to slow down those attempting to pass him, especially during a first green flag run that saw the No. 77 Chevrolet (the team switched Graf’s car from a Ford to a Chevy for this weekend due to his racing with Richard Childress Racing on the Xfinity side) battling a tight condition was hard and clean, both of which have proven a struggle for Graf at times during his ARCA career. Maybe he’s trying to pick up where Ryan Newman left off?
On the other side of that storyline was Herbst, who had his roughest day on track since the Bristol K&N East Series race. Both practices were unkind to Herbst, who suffered an engine failure in the ARCA car and wrecked his primary machine in Xfinity Series practice. The engine change did no good for the No. 18 team, however; by lap 12 Herbst was on pit road with the team working on the car (the team appeared to be working on the ignition box during at least one of the stops). Herbst finished 12th, but completed only 58 laps doing so.
Herbst’s team wasn’t the only one to struggle with what appeared to be an epidemic of mechanical issues at Michigan. Plug wire issues ran rampant across the field on Friday; under the sole caution of the event, Majeski, Eckes and Brad Smith all pitted to check their connections. I’m torn on whether this is a good or bad thing; it’s concerning given how essential the Ilmor engine program is to the ARCA ranks, but there is something to be said about race cars being a little less reliable.
McLaughlin was clearly spun by Graf on a lap 52 restart, but video replay all but conclusively proved that the spin was a a result of a terrible restart rather than an over-aggressive push. The No. 09 car was at a literal crawl coming through the gears, and forced Graf to do everything short of stopping before spinning the No. 09 on the frontstretch. Fortunately, Scott Melton took evasive maneuvers to avoid contact with McLaughlin, who would get going after his spin and recover to finish a career-best 10th.
Brandon McReynolds disastrous part-time campaign with the KBR Development race team continued at Michigan, as the No. 28 car brought out the only yellow of Friday’s race:
McReynolds’ has now scored three DNFs in four ARCA starts in 2019.
Let’s get this out of the way… 18 cars starting a major league stock car race on a superspeedway is not a good look (looking back to 1990, Friday was the first time an ARCA race at Michigan started with fewer than 25 cars in the field). And, as #ARCA Twitter pointed out, being so short of cars on a companion weekend is even more concerning:
Wow, at a nascar track and can still only get 18 cars. #arca
— Antony Blalock™ (@AntmanB_Tone) June 7, 2019
Coming on the heels of a week that saw Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park cancel their upcoming K&N East Series race due to what has been speculated as low car count (commenters on the track’s Facebook page estimated as few as nine cars could have been contesting the event), even the pending 2020 merger of the ARCA and K&N ranks may not be enough to get the car counts to where ARCA races were a decade ago. But what’s not being discussed here is what’s likely the real driving force that’s keeping entries out of the development series… namely, that driver development is just moving straight to the big leagues, whether it’s time for promotion or not. Just look at the field this weekend. Graf is making his Xfinity debut despite having scored no top-five finishes in the first eight races of his sophomore ARCA campaign. Herbst is running arguably the most potent car in the Xfinity Series garage despite winning only one race with Joe Gibbs Racing equipment in essentially single-A baseball. Natalie Decker is in Fort Worth racing in the Truck Series after finishing seventh in points with the same No. 25 team that Self has already won three times and leads the standings with.
With ARCA becoming a NASCAR property, maybe it’s time for NASCAR licensing to get more stringent on who can and can’t move up the ladder.
Now, having said all that about car counts, I have to disagree with another sentiment that played out on social media over the course of Friday’s race:
— Taylor Bowe Mcardle (@KyleBusch51Fan2) June 7, 2019
For one, short memory seems to prevail in racing these days; it wasn’t two weeks ago that ARCA put on a stellar show at Charlotte Motor Speedway with only a handful more cars in the field than was seen at Michigan. And it was a little over a decade ago when David Stremme literally lapped the field in an ARCA race at MIS in 2006.
As much as ARCA’s races at Salem, Toledo and the dirt fairgrounds in Illinois are the best shows the series has to offer, it is necessary for ARCA to continue to contest intermediates as they do. Namely, because ARCA is the only minor league option out there for drivers to contest intermediate ovals before moving to big league NASCAR. The Michigan race Friday played out like many other ARCA races do on longer ovals, with inexplicable mistakes (see McLaughlin’s spin), limited examples of side-by-side racing (just like at Talladega), and wide disparities in car speed. But, just like most ARCA races, for those that kept watching, something did happen:
🎥 ARCA / FOX Sports pic.twitter.com/NIVIAZuEI6
— Vincent Bruins (@VincentJBruins) June 7, 2019