In a Nutshell: Sam Mayer did a masterful job holding the race lead on old tires until turn 3 of the last lap when a slight bobble (or possible indecision) opened enough of a door for Ty Gibbs to sneak past for his first career ARCA Menard’s Series win. Gibbs, who did make contact with Mayer on his winning pass, called the move “fair game” in victory lane, saying Mayer “opened the door” with his entry into turn 3 (more on that later):
— WWT Raceway (@WWTRaceway) June 23, 2019
While two part-timers in ARCA competition stole the headlines at the finish, the curse of the series points lead struck again just outside St. Louis. Michael Self, fresh off winning his fourth pole of 2019 and running in the top five for much of the race, bowed out 35 laps short of the finish with a broken axle, his second such issue this month (the No. 25 also broke an axle at Pocono).
— WWT Raceway (@WWTRaceway) June 23, 2019
Self’s struggles allowed all of his competition to capitalize. Venturini Motorsports teammate Christian Eckes finished second, putting his hospitalization and missed race at Salem squarely in the rearview mirror. Travis Braden’s consistency was on display again, with the No. 27 finishing seventh. And even Bret Holmes managed to make up ground, despite spinning twice over the course of Saturday night’s race. Leaving Gateway, Self holds a 30-point lead over Holmes, with Braden 45 and Eckes 65 points back, respectively. Joe Graf, Jr. saw a potential top-five finish disappear with a fuel shortage late, but he remains within 170 markers of the series lead.
It was visibly hard to pass all evening long at Gateway. Having said that, Gibbs took both of his race leads the hard way…on-track and under green. Gibbs first got around Eckes for the race lead on lap 81, not only making the pass coming down turn 1 but doing so while the lapped car of Eric Caudell put both of the leaders at risk in turn 1, pinching down Gibbs on corner entry before washing up the track and forcing Eckes into evasive action. However, when the final yellow of the race came out on lap 110, Gibbs would lose the race lead when his team brought him down pit road for right side tires. Restarting eighth with six laps to go, Gibbs put together the best restart anyone in the field had all day, getting up to second within two laps. From there, Gibbs was in position to capitalize when Mayer appeared to bobble in turn 3 on the final lap. I’m not ready to echo Twitter calling Gibbs a “generational talent” based on this result (he’s driving Joe Gibbs Racing cars in the ARCA ranks, he should be winning races), but this was a well-deserved first win.
Mayer was visibly upset with Gibbs after the last lap pass, as he went out of his way to bump Gibbs’ Toyota on the cooldown lap. While I can understand his frustration, I don’t agree with his statement that “it wasn’t really a pass” that Gibbs pulled on him. Yes, Gibbs made contact with Mayer on the last lap. Yes, the door was open for Gibbs to make the pass. Mayer did not hold the bottom line entering turn 3, and Gibbs pounced. To echo Gibbs, “fair game.”
Now having said that, for Mayer to be able to hold the entire field at bay for five and a half laps despite being on worn tires was masterful. Credit to Mayer and his GMS Racing team from going from also-ran to major factor with their late-race strategy call, delivering the youngster his fourth consecutive top-five finish. Mayer may well be Chevrolet’s best bet for an ARCA trophy in 2019… remember ARCA’s race at Elko Speedway, the site of Chevrolet’s only 2018 win, is only three weeks away.
Corey Heim had the save of the day in turn 4 immediately after a lap 73 restart, catching a car that got wicked loose as Gibbs passed on the high side. What’s more, Heim’s fourth-place finish was a career-best.
Carson Hocevar scored his fifth consecutive top 10 finish in ARCA competition with a fifth-place result; his No. 28 team continues to excel off the superspeedways while finding every issue imaginable on them.
Really good run for our #28 @gmpartsnow @TeamChevy! Can’t thank everyone at @KBRdevelopment for never quitting after practice and throwing the kitchen sink at it. Came from our p12 starting spot and ran p4 most the night and ended up p5 at end!! pic.twitter.com/wy5mZwIvW1
— Carson Hocevar (@CarsonHocevar) June 23, 2019
Drew Dollar carried the flag for DGR-Crosley Racing in his ARCA debut, finishing sixth.
Unfortunately for the team, all the progress that Tanner Gray seemed to have made on longer tracks went out the window on Saturday, as Gray wrecked out of the race on lap 42 with an unassisted spin in turn 4. Saturday was Gray’s first career DNF in ARCA competition.
Holmes had a rough race at Gateway a year ago, getting into an incident of his own making with Natalie Decker. One year later, Gateway proved just as unkind to the No. 23 team. Holmes’ troubles started on lap 11, when he spun himself out after washing up the track under Drew Dollar’s Toyota in turn 2. Going two laps down getting up to speed from that incident, Holmes would again spin on lap 68, flattening the rear end of his machine. Holmes scored a top 10 (10th), but was five laps off the pace doing it.
It’s perhaps unfair to call Venturini Motorsports’ performance on Saturday “bad”, seeing as how Eckes finished second and the organization leaves Gateway with the series points lead. But there’s no way not to consider Saturday’s race disappointing. Self’s points lead was eroded further thanks to a second broken axle in a four-race stretch. Chandler Smith finished outside the top 10 for the first time in his ARCA career (15 starts) after being forced behind the wall under a lap 11 caution with an issue in the rear end. And though Eckes finished second, one can’t help but question the pit strategy call that saw the No. 15 car lose track position by taking four tires under the lap 110 caution.
Why question that call? Because rewind back to a lap 51 restart, where Eckes started fifth on four new tires behind four cars on old tires. Despite the advantage in rubber, it took Eckes nine laps to pass those four cars to get to the race lead. To replay that strategy with even fewer laps to go was never going to be a race-winning move.
On a more neutral note, stadium truck regular Gavin Harlien finished eighth in his ARCA debut with VMS’ No. 55 car, running an uneventful race sans a lap 27 spin (more on that later). The MAVTV crew noted that Harlien may be making a full-season run for Rookie of the Year in 2020.
Graf spent the majority of Saturday’s race looking like the veteran he is (at least amongst his competition) in the ARCA ranks, racing clean and hard on contrary tire strategy to hold off a number of strong cars for position. Running fourth inside of 30 laps to go, Graf was ordered by his team to start saving fuel around lap 93, which saw the pace of the No. 77 immediately drop. Falling back to seventh quickly, Graf would bring out the yellow flag on lap 110 with an apparent fuel shortage (though he was able to get back to the pits for fuel). The broadcast shed no light on this, but it appears Graf incurred a penalty for bringing out said yellow:
— Chad Bryant Racing (@ChadBryantRace) June 23, 2019
Did the No. 77 stop on the track to bring out a yellow? Yes or no, finishing 11th, seven laps down, was not representative of the team’s performance.
While Holmes was the highest-running car affected by the lap 11 caution, Tim Richmond was also involved in an incident of some kind, as he was seen on pit road with damage, though the broadcast provided no update on what happened to the No. 06:
— Mike “And the award for NASCAR goes to…” Raphael (@Mike_motorsport) June 22, 2019
Richmond finished 92 laps off the pace Saturday, the worst such finish for Wayne Peterson Racing’s flagship in 2019.
FOX’s coverage of the ARCA race at Gateway last year was nothing short of woeful, with camera angles so lacking that the good folks at Venturini Motorsports corrected an observation I made in this column a year ago… using still photos (they were definitely right, I was wrong). Having said that, I entered this Saturday hoping MAVTV would at least clear that low bar.
150 miles later, they didn’t. Saturday’s broadcast left more questions than answers on a number of episodes that had major impacts on the race. Showing Richmond’s damaged car with no reference as to what happened to the No. 06, while under a yellow flag, is a misfire. Having no video replay of Harlien’s lap 27 spin is a misfire… how is one supposed to get an objective idea of how the debutante’s day went without being able to see the one incident he was involved in? Especially when, depending on which team’s social media one is reading, Harlien either spun or was spun:
— VenturiniMotorsports (@VenturiniMotor) June 23, 2019
— Chad Bryant Racing (@ChadBryantRace) June 23, 2019
The camera crew missed the start of Gray’s spin to bring out the yellow flag on lap 42.
Perhaps most strikingly, the broadcast offered no conclusive reason as to why the yellow flag flew on lap 110, bunching up the field for what ended up being an eventful restart after Gibbs had run off into the sunset. The crew mentioned that Graf had run out of fuel, though seeing Graf able to roll down pit road and get to his crew for service made that hard to understand. Further, as seen earlier, Chad Bryant Racing’s note that Graf was supposedly penalized for said episode was never mentioned by the broadcast crew. This fuel shortage/stopping on the track/whatever it was literally changed the race, and nearly resulted in the fastest car on track not winning. For it to go all but unaddressed is an objective failure.
What’s more, there were a number of folks in the #arcanightinamerica fan section that weren’t even able to watch what was there for a broadcast:
I don't understand why @LucasRacingTV is not streaming the #ARCA race live right now, but that's very disapointing. I've paid for this service thinking I'd be able to watch ARCA live since I cannot get @MAVTV #ARCA #NASCAR #PixelatedSPEED
— Daniel Vining, PixelatedSPEED (@DanielVining) June 22, 2019
Having all 20 ARCA races available, with a professional broadcast, is leaps and bounds better than where ARCA fans were even five years ago. But if this series is going to grow, especially as it becomes part of the NASCAR umbrella, just being on isn’t good enough anymore.
On a personal note, I booked a hotel room outside St. Louis for this weekend next year. Regardless of the broadcast network, it seems like I’ve just gotta be at Gateway to get the story straight. Taking barbecue recommendations…
Just like at Pocono, the cars that took the green in the ARCA field this Saturday looked like crustaceans coming down the frontstretch:
And just like at Pocono, those set-ups came back to burn Venturini Motorsports, with arguably their two fastest cars both sidelined with rear-end issues. While seeing crab-walking cars might make fans uncomfortably remember NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, I personally love to see the rulebook allowing for ARCA teams, even running such templated race cars, to take risks with the set-ups, and to reap the rewards (or not).
Where that aggression needs to catch up, is with the General Tires that the ARCA teams are competing on. Gateway has always been a notoriously hard track to pass on, and ARCA’s limits on RPM bands in the cars certainly compound that. Having said that, to see a car that drove away with the race lead on a previous run take nine laps to pass four cars despite having four fresh tires is concerning, not just from a quality of race perspective, but because part of the sales pitch for drivers to do development starts in ARCA racing is to get used to tire wear. The honeymoon is over with General Tire getting into stock cars… now it’s time for performance to improve.