Home / ARCA / ARCA Racing Series Breakdown: 2019 Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Fall Classic at Salem
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

ARCA Racing Series Breakdown: 2019 Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Fall Classic at Salem

After leading ARCA practice and winning the pole for Saturday’s race, Ty Gibbs rocketed away on the initial restart Saturday (Sept. 14) at Salem Speedway. He led by a half second almost immediately.

It was a metaphor for the entire evening. Gibbs was absolutely dominant on the Salem high banks Saturday, leading 196 of 200 laps to score his second career ARCA win. 

Christian Eckes, Corey Heim, Bret Holmes and Sam Mayer rounded out the top five.

While Gibbs stunk up the show at the front of the Salem field, the front of the ARCA point standings was anything but calm. Series point leader Michael Self ran second for nearly the entire first half of the race as teammate Eckes also ran in the top five. However, disaster struck after pit stops during a lap 76 yellow. Self, having already pitted, suddenly went back down pit road only to go behind the wall with what turned out to be a broken A-frame in the car’s suspension. As the race went back to green on lap 85, Self and crew were under the hood in the infield trying to repair his Toyota.

With the point leader stricken, Eckes and his No. 15 team capitalized. Briefly taking the lead on pit road under a lap 173 yellow, Eckes led four laps and secured bonus points for doing so. He held onto second place in the running order for the remainder of the race despite heavy pressure from both Mayer and Heim in the closing laps. Heading to the series’ penultimate race at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis, Eckes now trails Self by only five points (one on-track position) in the standings.

The Good

In the three seasons Joe Gibbs Racing has been fielding a full-time ARCA entry, Saturday nights like these have been far too infrequent for a team with this kind of resources. Gibbs was untouchable under green all night at Salem, even as the track transitioned as the race went from day to night. A rocket on restarts and driving a car that got stronger on the long run during the second half of the race, the No. 18 ARCA car looked a lot like the No. 18 Xfinity ride with Kyle Busch behind the wheel. Utter dominance.

I will say though, Gibbs is stretching a bit with his “throwback scheme.”

The MAVTV crew speculated that Eckes took it easy when he lost the lead on a lap 177 restart, allowing Gibbs to rocket away only four laps after his crew grabbed the No. 15 the lead during yellow flag pit stops. Be it smarts or simply being the second fastest car on the night, Eckes capitalized on a golden opportunity in the points race… and found redemption at the very track that buried him in the first place.

Salem has been feast or famine for Eckes in his brief career. He won the spring race here a year ago, only to miss this April’s event when he was hospitalized for a non-racing medical issue. To finish second and all but level the title chase on the same weekend that he won the Truck Series pole and finished third at Las Vegas was nothing short of a victory for him. 

And should we mention he’s ARCA’s defending winner at Lucas Oil Raceway?

Brian Finney’s 17th-place finish that saw him complete only 49 laps was nothing to write home about. But to see any new teams/entrants in ARCA competition that are fielding composite body race cars that will be mandatory for the 2020 season is a very welcome sight.

In finishing third, Heim scored his ninth consecutive top-10 performance and equaled his career-best result in ARCA competition. Heim came alive in the second half of the race, winning a shoving match late with Mayer for position and threatening Eckes for the runner-up spot in the closing laps. Chad Bryant Racing would do well to find some dollars to run full-time with Heim next year.

As for Mayer, his fifth-place finish was a convincing one, as he was a fixture in the top five and had considerable speed over the long run, which spoke well to his tire conservation skills. Having said that…

The Bad

Mayer came out yet again on the short end of the stick when the racing got physical. The runner-up to Gibbs at Gateway earlier this season, Mayer ended up losing out to Heim in a pitched battle that saw the two trade paint multiple times after the final restart inside of 10 laps to go. Mayer’s showing considerable skill given his ARCA performances and how he’s leading the K&N Pro Series East points. But he’s also proof positive that yes, ARCA is a step up from the K&N ranks. 

Nowhere to be found this Saturday was Chandler Smith, the ultimate short track ace in the ARCA ranks that’s scored four wins on the bullrings in 2019. Struggling with a lack of grip on the high banks all evening long, Smith ran at the back of the top 10 all night, finishing off the lead lap in eighth after incurring a restart violation penalty on the lap 85 restart. Though eighth isn’t the worst finish of his career, Smith has never been less of a factor in an ARCA race. 

The MAVTV crew noted Colby Howard understood he needed to make an impact in his limited ARCA starts. Sponsor dollars are needed to the point his current team, Win-Tron Racing, has had to scale back to part-time competition in 2019 after losing Gus Dean (and his financial backing). Finishing off the lead lap in 10th, a non-factor, was not the result this team or driver needed to make progress on 2020.

Gavin Harlien was reported to be a prime candidate to contest the full 2020 ARCA schedule with Venturini Motorsports. If that goes through, both driver and team will have to hope they get better results. Harlien brought out the yellow on lap 76 with an apparent engine issue, stalling out at pit road entry and requiring assistance to get behind the wall.

The Ugly

It couldn’t get much worse for Self. Already plagued all season long by fluke mechanical issues and part failures that have prevented the No. 25 team from running away with the series crown, a broken suspension cost Self’s No. 25 team a likely top-five finish. All but five points of their lead in the standings is gone along with any momentum they had after surviving ARCA’s August dirt legs. Self and team will now have to go on offense at Lucas Oil Raceway, a track that Eckes has made his playground in previous career starts. 

Final Inspection

ARCA throwback weekend continues to gain momentum, with more than a half-dozen teams taking part this year. In a continuation of just how disappointing a night it was for Venturini Motorsports, despite bringing several solid paint schemes, they were outdone. Ed Pompa’s Darrell Waltrip-inspired scheme won “Best in Show” from the Salem Speedway crowd, though I’m going to give the nod to Carson Hocevar’s Bruce VanderLaan-inspired scheme. 

There’s few throwbacks more appropriate for an ARCA race than that of a Berlin Raceway veteran.

Despite one having a playoff system and one not, both the Truck and ARCA Racing series are enjoying stellar points battles this year. One word of caution, however, to those that would hold up the ARCA ranks as proof positive that the playoffs are flawed/broken/unnecessary. While both Eckes and Self have been largely even in competition this year, the closeness of this year’s points race has been bolstered by the combination of low car counts and disparity at the front of the field that have made it all but impossible for bad finishes to prove truly catastrophic. Just look at this event; despite finishing 66 laps off the pace, Self still scored a top 15 and kept the points lead.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. If the on-track product is good, who cares what the score sheet says? 

Lastly, I’m gonna sound like a broken record, but live pit stops are why Eckes was able to garner bonus points that will matter in a points race this close. It would have allowed the No. 15 to challenge for a race win in the face of a dominant Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had they not decided to play it safe and points race. Keep… pit… road… live… in 2020.

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