The 2019 ARCA Menards Series season has come to an end, and Christian Eckes became the 36th different champion in its 67th season. The season saw seven different drivers capture victories over the 20 races. Venturini Motorsports won the owners’ championship, and the organization won 14 races this season. Eckes and teammate Michael Self finished one-two in the point standings. Rounding out the top five in the point standings were Bret Holmes, Travis Braden and Joe Graf Jr., respectively.
With the 2019 ARCA season complete, a group of esteemed media members, both from Frontstretch and other outlets, shared their thoughts on the 2019 season, surprises, disappointments, the schedule and the future of the series now that NASCAR has fully taken control and integrated it with both NASCAR K&N Pro Series divisions.
Give the 2019 ARCA season a letter grade. Did it meet your expectations? Why or why not?
Mark Kristl B. The racing was competitive, but there simply were not enough cars. Only four teams won races this year, illustrating the lack of consistent depth in the series. Six drivers competed full-time, but the sixth-place finisher, Tommy Vigh Jr., finished in the bottom 10 in 17 of the 20 races. Several front-runners did not compete full-time, robbing several races of stout performances from those drivers. Lastly, my TV provider does not offer MAVTV, so I was unable to see more than half of the races on TV. If fans are unable to watch the races, their interest in the series will wane.
Bryan Davis Keith: B. The points chase between Eckes and Self was close, but part of that was just the lack of cars in the field. Plus, the fact that the two were racing for the same team took away from it a bit. Majeski proving a force on the intermediates gave the season some pep, and the races at Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway were surprisingly good.
Christian Koelle: A. Early in the season when Eckes missed Salem Speedway and then crashed at Talladega Superspeedway, I felt like this was going to be a runaway season for Self, so it really exceeded my expectations. I felt like it was more exciting than some of the previous seasons, especially with the points battle at the end, wherein seasons past, it seems like drivers clinched early or at least had a very sizable gap heading to Kansas Speedway.
The Rowdy Maglite Show: B. The car count was so low, it just did not bring the racing to where it should be. The Ilmor engine has brought the competition up equally, but the car count going down made it what it should not have been. Everybody was in flux waiting to see what would happen with the combination of the K&N Series and ARCA Series. There are cars being built right now for next year at an affordable price. That will help tremendously, and the car count will probably go up by at least five cars. The competition was as good as it was the year before, but the car count was down.
William Soquet: A. While an overall lack of competitive depth hurt the series a little bit, there were numerous bright spots for the series. Eckes was on a tear as the season ended. Chandler Smith solidified himself as the next can’t-miss TRD prospect. Ty Gibbs showed that he, like Smith, will be a driver to contend with once he can run a full schedule. Self and Majeski rebooted their careers, and both took multiple checkered flags. At the end of the day, there was a tight championship battle without any playoff system, and experienced drivers like Majeski and Harrison Burton provided a nice extra layer for the developmental series, leaving me satisfied overall with the season.
Matt Weaver: I don’t believe in letter grades, but I felt like the ARCA season was as good as it could have been given the circumstances. It’s hard to ask more out of a championship battle short of the 2007 finale at Toledo Speedway. Everyone in the industry is disappointed in car counts, and that hindered the racing at times. It’s hard to produce good racing anywhere when there are so few cars on the track to generate lapped traffic. Of course, NASCAR is working on that too with the 2020 model, so we’ll see. I still love ARCA, but it resembled more and more the K&N Pro Series ‘development league,’ and that was disheartening.
Which driver was the biggest surprise of the ARCA season. Can they repeat that success here or elsewhere for 2020?
Kristl: After a rocky 2018, Majeski thoroughly rebounded this year. In addition to dominating the late model circuit, Majeski won three races and finished inside the top five in all six of his races. If not for running out of gas on the last turn on the last lap, Majeski could have won at Michigan International Speedway as well. He has steadily improved as a driver this season, and he demonstrated he has talent and deserves to race full-time in ARCA next year.
Keith: After watching him race last season I knew Smith was good, but seeing him prove utterly dominant, even when racing his teammates and title contenders Eckes and Self on the short tracks, was a surprise. The way he’s driving, I doubt we’ll ever see him run ARCA full-time, because when he turns 18, he’ll likely be promoted directly to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Koelle: Vigh Jr. was a big surprise this season in the underfunded No. 10 car, finishing solidly inside the top-10 in points and earning his first career top-10 finish at Toledo Speedway earlier this year. Do I feel like he can repeat his success? It depends on if he returns or not. I know he stated that running the remainder of the season was going to be a struggle without sponsorship, so it’ll all depend on sponsorship.
The Rowdy Maglite Show: Majeski. Hopefully he has a bright future ahead of him. I hope somebody picks him up and gives him a ride in some series, because he deserves it. He has to get that bad taste out of his mouth from driving for Roush Fenway Racing. It was a lackluster situation at best, and he should be in a decent truck to see what he can do. I think if not a full season in ARCA, he deserves a chance in the Truck Series. If given the right circumstances, yes, he can repeat his performance. But unfortunately, this sport is money-driven. I think he has a little backing right now, and with the right situation, he may not win right away, but he would consistently improve as the season progresses to be a top-10 driver.
Soquet: Corey Heim was the biggest surprise of the 2019 ARCA season. He came to Chad Bryant Racing with a decent amount of late model and super late model experience, including a close second at Martinsville Speedway late model race the previous fall. The newly re-branded team struggled a little bit in 2018, posting more results outside the top-10 than inside the top-10 in its flagship No. 77 entry. Heim was a pleasant surprise driving the No. 22 Ford, finishing every one of his 13 starts and recording 12 top-10 finishes. Whether he stays in the CBR camp or not for 2020, he will not be eligible to race superspeedways until mid-July, ruling out a full season. It’s safe to say, however, that Heim’s name will be up towards the front of the field next year.
Weaver: Gibbs was really impressive over the course of 11 races. I’ve watched Ty for several years across Late Model Stocks, K&N and ARCA, and he hasn’t always looked this complete. There have been times in which he was driving for Greg Marlowe that Gibbs looked every bit as raw as he is young. But what I’ve always appreciated about Ty is that he clearly loves stock car racing and he takes improvement seriously. I’ve always rolled my eyes when people talk about his family lineage because he’s never come across as entitled. I can’t wait to see what he does next year if he continues to take this as seriously as he does now.
Who or what was the biggest disappointment of the 2019 ARCA season, and how can they redeem themselves going forward?
Kristl: As Majeski proved Chad Bryant Racing has winning equipment, Graf Jr. struggled mightily and did not make any friends. He raced aggressively multiple times this season, including when he infuriated Gibbs at Lucas Oil Raceway as they raced for the lead. Moreover, Graf Jr. failed to qualify for two NASCAR Xfinity Series races. Even worse, he failed to make the field in good equipment, driving for both Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing.
Keith: I expected more from Hailie Deegan given her hype and Herbst given his experience level. But Graf Jr. proved a complete non-factor all season long, as teammates Heim and Majeski were good just about everywhere. He underachieved given the car he had.
Koelle: Herbst by far was the biggest disappointment this year. No wins but his teammate Gibbs earned two victories. Herbst hasn’t done utterly great, especially in equipment that other drivers winning Truck and Xfinity series races in. So someone is obviously seeing something I’m not.
Soquet: Not far from Heim is the biggest disappointment of the 2019 season – Graf Jr. He had seven more starts than Heim and had only one top-five finish — a fourth at Michigan. For a driver that had one of the most controversial (or exciting) wins of last season, not contending for any wins this year was a definite step down in performance. Compound that with his Xfinity Series woes, and the season even gets more dismal for Graf. Depending on where he and sponsor Eat Sleep Race decide to go for 2020, running on par with teammates in whatever series he is competing in would be a nice bit of redemption going forward.
Weaver: I am a huge proponent of Deegan. We awarded her the Autoweek rising star award over the winter, and I stand by the designation today. She has a lot of rough edges when it comes to her driving style. She has to win races without moving people out of the way. But I really appreciate her candor, exuberance and social media savviness. When I first met her at Hickory Motor Speedway two years ago, after a quick exchange, I thought, ‘She sounds like a racer.’ So, she has the right make-up to succeed. With that said, a 10th-place average finish in ARCA driving Venturini cars ain’t going to cut it. I’ve always said that her development has been hampered by racing on those K&N West tracks with some of her similarly inexperienced drivers. So, another round of ARCA races, and hopefully some Super Late Model starts, will be on tap because she needs to race around veterans.
With NASCAR taking total control of ARCA next year, what is one change you would like to see made to ARCA?
Kristl: Lower the field size to 30. Currently, the ARCA field size is 36, but only once this season did the field size surpass 30. If the field size is reduced and that purse money is redistributed, it may help teams, or at minimum, it will not hurt them. With ARCA and K&N merging, sending drivers home is not a bad thing. It can raise the competitiveness of the field. Plus, for prospective sponsors, both for the series and teams, marketability is huge. Promoting a full field will show fans the series is healthy, even if the field size has been reduced.
Keith: I’m going to sound like a hypocrite saying this, but at the ARCA level, the 18-years-old requirement needs to be lifted. For one, car counts need to go up. But, as well-intentioned as this rule is (and I’d keep it in place from Trucks on up), there’s no reason for drivers like Smith and even Gibbs to be stuck unable to run for a title when they’ve proven capable. Set a very high bar for licensing those under 18, but drivers winning races like Smith did should be running full-time.
Koelle: Keep the original points system and don’t adopt the playoffs. The other thing I asked for isn’t happening as we’re gonna travel all over the country with teams who just can’t afford it. It might be interesting to see what things they change and how it changes everything. I also want to see them keep testing like it always has been.
The Rowdy Maglite Show: What I would like to see is a higher purse. How does NASCAR expect teams to show up at ISM Raceway next season with the purse they are paying? When the purse does not even cover the tire cost and it is totally up the sponsors, how does NASCAR expect teams to travel there? Not only does a driver have to race to win, they have to find companies willing to sponsor them. Sponsors then do not want to see the driver finish 20th in a 21-car field, they want to see their driver win! That is the name of the game.
Soquet: ARCA’s points system should be integrated with NASCAR’s point system. While having the old point system was a nice point of uniqueness for the series, with ARCA joining K&N, it’s time for the points system to change as well. With bonuses like consecutive-attempts awards and practice lap points, not even the sanctioning body itself could keep track of it — they issued an audit late in the season that in the end didn’t affect the championship, but could’ve if the cards fell differently at Kansas Speedway. Make it the same as the current K&N points system and solve a lot of headaches for those in and around the series.
Weaver: There are several things I would like to see: I want all three ARCA divisions to utilize the NASCAR-style one-point-per-position championship payout. The purses need to be increased. Right now, I don’t see the ROI of competing in ARCA. If you have an ARCA budget, you can spend that in the Truck Series for a greater return. So raise the purses and incentivize teams to participate. NASCAR needs to be very careful on how they balance the Ilmor and Yates engines to not immediately run off half of their potential participants.
The 2020 ARCA schedule is out. Did NASCAR make the right changes to help this series grow under their umbrella?
Kristl: Yes and no. ISM Raceway will be an enormous cost to teams. The two road courses will mirror the dirt tracks in that they will be an opportunity for road course ringers to shine. I am glad the race at Lucas Oil Raceway has been paired with the NASCAR race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – with the right promotion, it can benefit all involved. The race at Bristol Motor Speedway seems like overkill to me. All three major NASCAR series race there, was it necessary for ARCA to race there as well? Although Toledo Speedway likely will be on the ARCA Menards Series East schedule, it has so much history with ARCA, it is a shame to see it off the main ARCA Series schedule. Lastly, I love the fact the 2020 schedule consists of 20 races at 20 different tracks.
Keith: It’s a mixed bag. It was a welcome relief to see the Illinois dirt races still have a home, and I like the idea of having no duplicate races on the schedule. Having said that, losing Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville and Toledo Speedway to add Memphis International Speedway and another race at Bristol left a sour taste in my mouth.
Koelle: No. When we can’t fill a field in a track as close as Nashville, how do we expect to fill the field in Phoenix? Not a good move by NASCAR.
The Rowdy Maglite Show: ISM Raceway kicks you right in the teeth. I do not know how NASCAR expects teams to drive that far for the second race. The first race is at Daytona, and then teams are expected to load up to go to Phoenix for the next race. I am disappointed we lost Five Flags Speedway. I am happy for Memphis — that is a great pick. I am sorry to see ARCA not going twice a year to Salem Speedway. The races were good, it had nice full fields, full grandstands and there is history. I think the only reason ARCA is going to Elko Speedway is because of Track Enterprises. The fans pack the house, and it is a good paying race. Overall, the schedule is good.
Soquet: On the surface, yes. The schedule keeps many of the traditional ARCA favorites — Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Elko Speedway, two dirt races — while adding back road courses for the first time since 2017 and adding popular K&N stops Bristol and Memphis to the schedule. I’m not sure how many teams will make the long trip out to Phoenix in March, and I am sad to see Toledo, Nashville and Five Flags disappear, but Five Flags has already been announced as part of the East schedule, and I hope the other two will be as well. The addition of the Showdown is really just an evolution of the current ARCA Short Track Championship, but more emphasis on it will give ARCA a selling point much like Xfinity with Dash 4 Cash and Trucks with the Triple Truck Challenge.
Weaver: NASCAR can only go where they are wanted and where it makes business sense for both sides. I could sit here and say that I wish there were races at Nashville, Winchester Speedway and Mobile International Speedway, but that can only happen with two sides that can make those business agreements viable. So, I’m not going to sit here and lobby for schedules changes with that consideration in mind. I fear that both ARCA and the K&N Series are starting to resemble too much the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity and Truck schedules. There needs to be more independent short tracks on these schedules. It’s good for these drivers to get national touring track experience, but these tracks are what gives ARCA its own identity. And like I said, if ARCA and Trucks cost the same and race at the same places, just merge them and boost car counts that way.