The battle for the ARCA Menards Series championship moves from the quick half-mile of Toledo Speedway to the sweeping, ultra-fast high banks of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Thursday night’s General Tire 150. The race, the seventh race of the season, will be the second race in five days for the ARCA Menards Series teams and the second race of a seven-races-in-six-weeks stretch that carries the tour into the summer.
No one has been able to hold on to the series championship lead for more than one race throughout the series’ first six races of the year. Harrison Burton (No. 20 DEX Imaging Toyota) led after winning the season opener at Daytona, but he is racing full time in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and not competing for the ARCA title. Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) took over the top spot after finishing third at Five Flags Speedway in March, but fell ill the night before the third race of the season and did not compete, losing the lead to Travis Braden (No. 27 MatrixCare/Consonus Health Care/Liberty Village Ford). Braden lost the lead to Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota) after the fourth race of the year at Talladega but regained the lead after the fifth race of the year at Nashville when Self was caught up in an accident and finished 15th.
Braden held the lead going into the race at Toledo, but now faces a 25-point deficit to Self after a crash at Toledo left him 13th at the finish. Heading into Thursday night’s 100-lap clash on the 1.5-mile quad-oval at Charlotte third-place Bret Holmes (No. 23 Holmes II Excavation/Southern States Bank Chevrolet) is just 35 points out of the lead. Eckes jumped to fourth with a third-place finish at Toledo, now just 65 points out of the lead, and Joe Graf, Jr. (No. 77 EAT SLEEP RACE Ford) dropped to fifth but is just 100 points out of the lead. The tightness at the top of the standings means anyone could come out on top after the race.
“This points battle has already been very intense,” Braden said. “No one’s even been racing head-to-head for it yet on track. We’ve also just passed the one quarter mark of the season. Now, the intensity of the schedule is about to ramp up, and things will get even trickier. Mistakes will be made, and I feel that some frustrations will start to set in. A championship battle like this is as much a mental fight as it is physical.”
Although he missed the race at Salem due to illness, Eckes is fourth in the standings. Missing the race at Salem certainly hurt his chances, but a 26th-place finish at Talladega the following week almost ruined them. Eckes stayed focused and went on to win at Nashville, reigniting his championship hopes.
“The month of April wasn’t very kind to us,” Eckes said. “But we can’t look back. We’re going to go out and do what we need to do and that’s go try to win as many races as we can. We’re going to look ahead and whatever happens will happen.”
If he’s going to get back into the title fight, Eckes will have to deal not only with Braden, but his Venturini Motorsports teammate Self as well. Self, who is also running the full ARCA Menards Series season for the first time in his career, was a pre-season favorite to win the championship. He was swept into a crash early at Daytona and finished 31st, leaving him in a deep points hole heading into the second race of the season. He won the next time out at Five Flags and went back-to-back with a win at Salem. Self has been one of the strongest cars on the track every week but has been involved in two accidents not of his doing. He avoided the trouble that shortened Braden’s day at Toledo and retook the points lead for the third time this season.
“If you look at my stats it’s crazy,” Self said. “It’s up and down. When I finish, I am in the top five. We need to get over the bad luck and find consistency. We’ve had great cars all season long and we’ve been fast. If we can keep out of those situations like Daytona and Nashville and still keep our performance where it’s been we’ll have a shot at it.”
While he might have flown under the radar the first quarter of the season, Holmes is not one that should be overlooked. After a difficult 2018 season that saw he and his father Stacy decide to park their racecar several races short of the full season to restructure the team, Holmes has been quietly strong to start 2019. Crew chief Shane Huffman, himself a former driver, has rebuilt the racecars and given Holmes confidence he can go compete for his elusive first career ARCA win.
“We decided we needed to regroup and figure out what we needed to be successful for this season,” said Holmes. “We worked hard over the off season to put together a strong team. We knew where we wanted to be and the resources we needed to get there. Racing is a family sport. You travel a lot with your team and get to know everyone really well. It’s important to have a strong leader and hardworking crew members. I’m proud of the team that we’ve put together. We take steps forward after each race and build on what we learned to make the next race stronger. We have the cars and guys to be a competitive team this season. One of our main goals for the rest of this season is to be consistent and finish within the top five every week. I feel like we’re achieving that goal right now. We just have to continue to work through the little kinks that come with each race. We’re still a fairly new team, so there’s always things we can work on to be better. If we can continue to be consistent, I know we will have a chance at the championship.”
Graf made a splash in his rookie season last year when he finished second in the closest finish in series history at Talladega, a statistical dead heat that was only broken by reviewing the photo finish camera. He followed with his first career win in a fender-banging duel with Zane Smith – the driver he lost to at Talladega – to win at Berlin. In cars owned by crew chief-turned-car owner Chad Bryant who still prepares and calls the shots for Graf on race weekends, the New Jersey native expected to be a title contender in 2019. He’s in the mix but has fought bad luck to start the season. Graf has stayed positive and looks to make a move to the front through the next six weeks.
“We didn’t have the start to the season that we were hoping, but luckily we’ve been able to build some consistency as the season marches on and our finishes are showing that,” offered Graf. “We’re not exactly where were wanted to be at the moment, but we’re improving and heading in the right direction with a lot of effort by everyone. We’ll get there. This team is too good. We know that consistency during this upcoming summer stretch will lead us back to victory lane and hopefully keep us within reach of the championship fight.”
Two hours of practice for the General Tire 150 is scheduled for 11:30 am ET, followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 5 pm ET, and the race is set to go green shortly after 9 pm ET. The race will be televised live on FS1; ARCA for Me members can access free live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live chat at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. For ticket information, log on to CharlotteMotorSpeedway.com or call the track ticket office at (800) 455-3267.