Source: Twitter (@michaelself)

ARCA Menards Series Breakdown: 2020 Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona

In a Nutshell: Defending series runner-up Michael Self led early and often from the pole at Daytona, weathering a lap 77 restart to drive off to his second career ARCA win at Daytona, the eighth victory of his ARCA career:

Self, who boasted of his car’s stability in the draft all weekend, proved untouchable at the front of the pack, never wavering from protecting the yellow line even as an aggressive Bret Holmes and the DGR-Crosley teammates of Hailie Deegan and Tanner Gray all took shots at the No. 25. Any chance the DGR-Crosley bunch had of challenging for the win evaporated on lap 72, when Gray was forced down pit road with a hole in his oil cooler. This left Deegan without a teammate and sandwiched between the Venturini duo of Self and Drew Dollar in the closing laps. Deegan, Dollar, Sean Corr and Thad Moffitt rounded out the top five.

By winning from the pole, Self scored the fourth consecutive pole and third consecutive win at Daytona for the Venturini Motorsports operation. VMS has won seven of the last nine ARCA races dating back to last season.

Only 17 of the 33 cars that started Saturday’s race were actually running at the finish, as the early half of the event was marred with numerous wrecks and engine failures, including a lap 39 “Big One” coming through the trioval:

Leaving Daytona, the top three contenders for the ARCA title in 2020 are 1-2-3 in the standings, with Self six points clear of Deegan. Dollar is one point behind in third.

THE GOOD

Though Ryan Repko caught damage in the lap 39 “Big One,” both of VMS’s full-time 2020 drivers had strong results in the season opener. Dollar saved his own day taking evasive action in the No. 15 during the same incident, cutting left through the turn 1 grass to avoid the carnage on the high banks. That save kept Dollar in contention for a top-10 finish in his own right, but also giving teammate Self an insurance policy; by running third, runner-up Deegan was limited in options to try a race-winning move late. As for Self, he is the decided title favorite in 2020 as a seasoned veteran that would have won the series title a year ago had he not wrecked out of the Daytona race early, and he looked every bit the part. Self won the pole as the leader of his group in qualifying, and made no mistakes on restarts while keeping his car out front for 61 of 80 laps. Fly the V, the No. 25 is currently the ARCA flagship.

While everyone on earth not living under a rock knows Deegan had a strong debut at Daytona, the reality is DGR-Crosley’s entire fleet showed well. Starting with Deegan, her runner-up finished tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Crocker for the best-ever finish by a woman both in ARCA competition at Daytona and in general. Deegan’s efforts were largely boosted by drafting help from teammate Gray, who despite his own inexperience proved capable of teamwork that would be right at home among the Cup Series’ Mustangs. Though Gray ended up retiring late with engine trouble, the former drag race standout looked every bit the prospect his heralded teammate did. Lastly, Moffitt rebounded from having his qualifying time disallowed for a height violation to score the first top-five finish of his career. It’s about time for VMS to have some competition.

SEGAL: HAILIE DEEGAN READY FOR NEXT CHAPTER

One year ago, Chuck Buchanan Jr. ran woefully off the pace and was involved in an incident inside the first 20 laps before finishing dead last in the East Series race at New Smyrna. Friday in his first appearance at the big track, it took until five minutes were left in Happy Hour practice before the No. 87 could even make a lap on the track: 

But, slow and steady delivered on Saturday, as the Spring Drug special weathered the storm to finish 13th, Buchanan’s best finish at any level of NASCAR since a ninth-place finish in East competition at South Boston.

Though Phil Parsons seemed a bit incredulous in the booth, kudos go to the ARCA officials for leaving the track green up until the final lap 72 caution saw both Gray oil down the track and David Gravel drop debris from his damaged car all over the backstretch. The debris on the track prior to lap 72 consisted of bearer bond (read: a ball of tape) that Gravel had radioed that he lost off his car as it happened, and another piece of debris that was sitting below the yellow line… as in, a place where the cars are by rule prohibited from going. Common sense kept a yellow-fever race green. Thanks for not going too NASCAR on us guys (and girls). See what I did there Phil? An additional shout-out goes to ARCA for their drivers’ meeting message that locking bumpers was discouraged, but not prohibited. Providing drivers with good advice but leaving them to decide a race amongst themselves is ALWAYS a good thing.

Two positive notes on the FOX Sports broadcast… first this race was nowhere near a repeat of the God-awful 2010 telecast that saw Danica Patrick on screen for 90% of her Daytona debut. Second, Ryan Blaney did an admirable job in the booth when discussing on-track elements… his breakdown of Andy Seuss’ wreck on lap 1 was superb. Blaney will never be a lead in the booth, but he may prove a worthy successor to Larry McReynolds down the road.

The hospitality of track staff this weekend (so far, and especially in the press box) had me questioning at least once if I ended up in Pocono. For those unaware of Pocono’s reputation, that’s a very good thing.

Corr’s fourth-place finish marked his career-best in 51 ARCA starts. That Corr was even around to finish fourth after falling like a rock through the field in an unstable 3-wide pack around lap 33 was an accomplishment. This praise would be without reservation, except that…

THE BAD

…he and Riley Herbst both made a royal mess of the closing 15 laps. Running sixth and seventh in a breakaway of seven cars up front, Corr and Herbst continually engaged in side-by-side racing with each other despite having no drafting help. Most notable of these episodes came on lap 69. With both Corr and Herbst catching back up to the lead draft as they lost time lapping Eric Caudell, Herbst immediately proceeded to try to pass Corr by himself, leaving Dollar in fifth with no help to challenge a vulnerable Gray. Unlike Corr, Herbst did not post a career-best finish despite his mistakes, and frankly, finishing seventh in an ARCA race with a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota isn’t nothing worth celebrating.

The other bullet in Ford’s chamber, Chad Bryant Racing, completely misfired as a result of the “Big One” on lap 39. The wreck collected both Connor Hall and Jacob Heafner, with Heafner enduring an especially hard impact in turn 1 that knocked his in-car camera completely offline:

Hall posted the organization’s best finish in 20th. 

Seuss is a veteran racecar driver, but his rookie mistake wasted no time bringing out the first yellow flag of the season when the No. 02 cut across the nose of Gravel’s Chevrolet on the backstretch. Spinning himself across the infield grass, Seuss triggered a wreck that also knocked hometown driver Stevie Reeves out of the race. Seuss’s wounded car was parked for good in the lap 39 “Big One.” 

Speaking of Gravel, the World of Outlaws-convert was involved in a ton of episodes that weren’t his fault, but that’s translation for “he was involved in a ton of incidents.” He finished with a car more tape than machine in 12th, off the lead lap.

Brad Smith avoided contact with the wall after spinning during an engine failure on lap 18, but that doesn’t change the fact that the No. 48 team blew an engine that was five years overdue for a rebuild:

Smith finished 31st, his worst finish at Daytona since 2016.

One negative note on the FOX Sports broadcast… the pit reporting was horrendous. Stumbling words, anecdotes that went nowhere, FOX would have been better off reading Tweets for coverage.

One negative note on the ARCA officiating… Moffitt’s car was reported on FOX as failing inspection for being too low in tech, yet those of us in the press box were handed documents that said the No. 46 team was sent to the rear for “unapproved adjustments.” That’s NASCAR-ese if I ever saw it.

Lastly, one never wants to pile on an older driver, especially in ARCA; James Hylton made a home here for decades after his NASCAR days were done, and Dave Mader III was strong up front before the lap 39 “Big One” collected his No. 63. Having said that, Benny Chastain was nothing but a problem on the racetrack Saturday. His first ARCA start in three years, the 77-year-old driver ran over the orange cone entering pit road under yellow on lap 22 (the cone ended up on the backstretch), was admonished by his team on lap 43 and told “be smart, we don’t need you running into anybody else,” and under the final yellow on lap 72 had his team frustrated on the radio when they had to repeat three times a request for water temperatures. Both driver and team were lucky the No. 09 wasn’t involved in a major incident Saturday.

THE UGLY

Deegan expressed joy in the media center post-race that her No. 4 team remained upbeat after enduring no wrecks in their opening race, but they certainly caused one on lap 50 when her No. 4 hooked Chuck Hiers in what was the most violent incident of the race:

There was no bad intent on Deegan’s part here, nor was her mistake uncommon for a rookie. Having said that, this was a nasty crash, and one that had No. 11 car owner Andy Hillenburg rightly irate on the radio after it happened. The question that may not get answered; would Deegan, who scored both of her West Series wins on asphalt by using a bumper, have played rougher with Self in the closing laps had she not already been in an on-track incident?

Sticking with Deegan, the decision of Monster Energy to put teeth on the hood of her car is questionable. The ugly comes from the Ford Motor Company, which has all of their prospects in the ARCA ranks racing a car model (the Fusion) that no longer exists. Talk about a marketing failure, especially as the Mustang brand is literally going in an uncharted direction with a recently-announced electric SUV model. Ford would seriously be better off doing what Joe Gibbs Racing did for Joey Logano in the 2010 Toyota All-Star Showdown, slapping Toyota decals on what was obviously a Chevrolet. Those teeth would actually look halfway decent on a zombie Mustang. 

Anyone that read my work from Las Vegas last spring knows how much I hate group qualifying in any form. This Saturday, group qualifying made a mockery out of the starting lineup for the ARCA race, with five of the six groups in qualifying unable to stay in line for even a single lap. The top five starters all came from the same group, Con Nicolopoulos’s spotter reported that the tower was giving unclear instructions as to when cars could leave pit road, and then came Holmes:

Kyle Souza tweeted on Saturday night that even the Whelen Modified Tour is ditching group qualifying for its races this year. Here’s hoping ARCA gets the message in time for Talladega.

Lastly, ARCA veteran and superspeedway winner Gus Dean proved a literal non-factor over the second half of Saturday’s race after his car suffered front end damage. His explanation of how he got it is a real whopper, and not a fan-fiction… the story was transmitted over the radio immediately after the red flag flew:

The definition of ugly.

Up Next: The ARCA Menards Series heads west to the Phoenix Raceway for the first time on March 6. The race will be televised on FOX Sports 1.

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