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(Photo: Christian Koelle)

ARCA Racing Series Breakdown: 2019 Shore Lunch 200 at Madison

Just like last year, Chandler Smith won the pole at Madison International Speedway. Just like last year, Smith dominated the race at Madison. Just like last year, Smith won the Shore Lunch 200 at Madison, scoring his second win of 2019 and fourth career ARCA Menard’s Series win in the process.

 

And for the first 150 laps of Friday’s race, this one played out just like last year. Smith proved impassable from the pole, leading the first 113 laps under green in one of the longest green-flag runs in recent ARCA history. After the leaders pitted for the race’s first yellow when Sam Mayer dumped Corey Heim in turn 3 when the two had a heated battle for position, Smith won the race off pit road, and proceeded to drive away from the field both on a lap 120 restart. Then he drove away again on lap 130 after Joe Graf, Jr. brought out the yellow on lap 124 with contact with Mayer. 

The race changed on that run, however. By lap 150, Ty Gibbs found another gear as Smith’s No. 20 car tightened up, and used the front bumper. Gibbs was able to muscle his way around the No. 20. Gibbs held the lead until lap 156, when rain in the area brought out the red flag. Smith and the No. 20 team took advantage of the rain and pitted before the red flag, giving them the race lead when the remainder of the leaders pit after the red was lifted on lap 162. 

When the race went back to green around lap 170, Smith found himself under siege from teammate Michael Self, who became the first car in the field able to use the high line to gain position on the track. Self would hold the lead until lap 182, when Christian Eckes spun under Self on the frontstretch trying to bump his way to the lead. 

Using the high line for the restart on lap 186, Self was able to hold off Smith until lap 190, when Smith heavily bumped his teammate for the race lead. Simultaneously, Hailie Deegan’s engine expired, dropping fluid on the track, bringing out the final yellow of the race. ARCA would again red flag the race to allow for clean-up, setting up a final restart around lap 195. Smith got a tremendous restart (more on that later) that saw him six car lengths ahead of the field by turn 1, driving off to the win. 

Self’s second-place finish left the driver a bit unhappy with his teammate’s aggression, but allowed him to extend his points lead to 35 over Bret Holmes (Self’s lead all but evaporated mid-week when ARCA penalized the No. 25 team for post-race infractions at Michigan International Speedwau). Mayer, Travis Braden and Holmes rounded out the top five. The top five in ARCA points all remain within 165 of the leader as the series heads to Gateway next week.

The Good

Smith won the pole, led more than 150 laps, and won the race with a cunning display of adaptation, opting to defy conventional logical at Madison and take the high line for the final restart on lap 195 after seeing his teammate Self do it so successfully on the prior restart. This was not the most composed performance that Smith has put together in his highly successful tenure with Venturini Motorsports; the No. 20 could visibly be seen pile-driving Self down the frontstretch to set-up what would become the pass for the race win on lap 190, while the team radio chatter was also tense during the rain delay after losing the lead to Gibbs.

The hows aside, results matter. And in terms of results, Smith made the correct call on adjustments during the rain delay, made the right call on the restart line to score the win, and has now scored 14 top-10 finishes in 14 ARCA starts. He’s more than earned a Truck Series debut today in Iowa.

Though Self found himself bested on the final restart, it was his No. 25 car that was the first to make the high line work on Friday night. The power move that Self used to steal the lead from Smith on lap 170 was as authoritative (and clean) a move as was seen Friday night. What’s more, finishing second after losing 50 points mid-week to a post-race penalty from their race winning efforts at Michigan last week both sustains momentum and casts any doubts over the strength of the No. 25 team out the window. 

Because Mayer finished third in Friday’s race is impressive on two fronts. For one, it marked Mayer’s third consecutive top-five finish in ARCA competition. But more impressively, Mayer managed to do it despite finding trouble on the track on multiple occasions early on Friday. Mayer was clearly seen on video turning Heim into the turn 3 wall to bring out the race’s first yellow on lap 113, a move that the MAVTV broadcast crew stated was precipitated by Heim cutting off Mayer in a battle for position. It was barely 10 laps later when Mayer also got into a scuffle with Graf. Be it track position or cooler heads prevailing (the rain did provide a cool down break for the field), Mayer was able to avoid further conflicts on the track to score a top five.

Neither driver had a particularly flashy performance, but Holmes and Braden’s top-five finishes kept them within striking distance of second and third in the season standings. Holmes was able to make his car last for the entirety of Friday’s event after having both the front and rear brakes of his car overheat at Madison a year ago, finishing fifth for his third consecutive top-five finish. As for Braden, he was able to turn a lucky dog pass back onto the lead lap into a fourth-place finish, his first top five in ARCA competition since Salem last September.

The Bad

Gibbs’ eighth-place finish was nowhere near representative of how well the No. 18 team ran on Friday night. Gibbs was able to run down and catch Smith under green on a short track in an ARCA car is something few drivers have accomplished over the last two seasons. What’s more, the addition of Mark McFarland to the pit box has dramatically improved the No. 18 car’s performance on ARCA bullrings off the main NASCAR circuit. But Gibbs continues to be the bridesmaid in ARCA competition, as the rails came off this performance in the closing laps.

Gibbs was one of four drivers penalized under yellow following the rain delay for failing to obey track official instructions exiting pit road, dropping him back in the field for the final laps. Gibbs was able to climb back to third, only to be penalized again on the final start on lap 195 for changing lanes before crossing the start finish line. While not to the level of NASCAR’s recent epidemic of pointless penalties, Gibbs did not advance his position as a result of his lane change, leading some to question whether such a call was necessary.

Finishing seventh isn’t bad, but finishing seventh also means Eckes is losing more points to teammate Self in the points battle. The lap 182 incident between Eckes and Self was probably the perfect microcosm of his season to date; battling hard for the race lead, Eckes did everything he could do, including bumping his teammate, to take the lead, only to spin himself down the frontstretch on turn 4 exit.

Chad Bryant Racing was the hottest team in ARCA after a three-week stand on the superspeedways yielded two wins and a runner-up finish, but that all went out the window with a return to the bullrings. Heim was having a solid run before getting turned into the turn 3 wall by Mayer. Heim’s No. 22 was damaged in a way that made it difficult for the team to refuel the car was bad enough. But 11 laps after the Mayer/Heim incident, the team’s No. 77 car also made contact with the wall, with Graf also coming into contact with Mayer. What came out on the MAVTV broadcast, however, was the worst of it all; Graf apparently had been instructed to race Mayer hard, given that Mayer had turned Graf’s teammate. 

While having teammates’ backs is an important part of racing, essentially instructing Graf to get into it with a driver that’s already proven willing to use the bumper seems counterproductive. For the sixth race in a row, Graf, as the team’s one full-time driver, was out-qualified by the No. 22 team, and again was running well behind Heim prior to the lap 113 wreck. Between earning a rough reputation for his antics at Berlin last summer and underperforming by team No. 77 standards thus far in 2019, it seems CBR’s efforts would be better spent improving the way the No. 77 is running as opposed to getting into squabbles.

The Ugly

Let’s be clear, this performance is being designated ugly because of the cloud of smoke it ended in. Visuals matter. 

Deegan’s third start in an ARCA car was by far her best. Though Deegan faded early in the first green flag run and was lapped, a lucky dog pass after the lap 113 yellow kept Deegan with the lead lap cars, and the feedback that crew chief Frank Kimmel praised the youngster for proved to be just what the No. 55 needed. Following pit stops, the No. 55 came to life and was knocking on the door of the top five prior to the rain delay on lap 156. Following that red flag, however, Deegan was another of the drivers penalized for failing to follow track official instructions exiting pit road, and mired in the field was not able to slice to the front as Toyota teammates Gibbs and Eckes were. Running towards the back of the top 10, Deegan’s engine expired on lap 190. 

Final Inspection

Watching Smith during Friday’s race, I couldn’t help but compare him to Joey Logano on two fronts. For one, watching dominant performances like Friday tears me on the issue of age limits in big league stock car racing. For one, there’s real business drivers that would suggest keeping racecar drivers under 18-years old limited from the big leagues, whether that be the Truck and Xfinity Series or ARCA’s superspeedway races. For two, with car counts lacking, it’d be a lifeline to the development ranks to force prospects to cut their teeth in ARCA and K&N competition. What’s more, removing drivers that are learning on the job from Truck and Xfinity competition will inevitably improve the competition level. Just look at last weekend; Riley Herbst appeared 20-feet over his head in JGR’s No. 18 Xfinity car, wrecking two Toyotas, while last Friday’s truck race at Texas was more demolition derby than stock car race. 

But, having said that, then there’s performances like Smith’s, that are competent and dominant. Frankly, the fact that Smith has scored four wins, seven poles and 14 top-10 finishes in 14 career ARCA races makes it pretty damn clear, that, 16 or not, this kid can race. Those kind of numbers frankly should merit promotion to the bigger leagues. As much as I hate borrowing from Formula 1, it may be time for stock car racing to consider some sort of statistical measure for lower level competition before promoting drivers up the ladder, a la Formula 2. 

The second comparison to Logano? Driving away from the field on a late race restart. As written in Thinkin’ after last weekend’s Cup race at Michigan, it appeared Logano jumped the last restart en route to victory. Watching Smith’s last restart at Madison, it sure looks like the same situation. Updated: ARCA officials confirmed to Frontstretch that the restart line for Friday’s race was the second white line per driver’s meeting instructions.

The fortunate part of this? End of the day, just as with Logano, the fastest car won on Friday night. 

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