Race Weekend Central

The Road to an ARCA Title Goes Through Talladega

After last week’s race at Texas (April 16), it seemed clear that the 2010 ARCA Racing Series championship hunt was a three-horse race between Venturini Motorsports’ red-hot Steve Arpin, Win-Tron Racing’s veteran Justin Marks and ARCA’s own “Mr. Showtime,” Patrick Sheltra.

But if recent history is any indication, Dakoda Armstrong just made himself contender number four this weekend, scoring a daring last-lap win at Talladega after dominating the first half of the race from the pole.

Yes, Armstrong is currently 10th in the points, over 200 markers out of first place. Yes, Armstrong’s first career victory on Friday was only his second top-10 finish of the season. And yes, even Armstrong’s teammate at Cunningham Motorsports, Tom Hessert, is currently ahead of him in the standings.

However, for all of its focus and history on the short tracks of Salem and Toledo, or the dirt rings of the Illinois fairgrounds, the road to an ARCA crown just happens to pass through Talladega. Rewind back to 2006. Frank Kimmel won at Talladega, then won the series title that same season. Same thing with Justin Allgaier in 2008… and Justin Lofton in 2009. The only aberration to that pattern was in 2007, when Michael Annett won Talladega in a part-time ride. But finishing runner-up in that race was none other than Kimmel, the eventual 2007 ARCA champion.

That’s not to say that luck doesn’t play some sort of factor in these plate races. But to win a title in any touring series, ARCA or otherwise, luck has to be on a team’s side. There’s a reason that at the NASCAR Sprint Cup level, Kevin Harvick made a point earlier this year to note that four-time champion Jimmie Johnson had a “golden horseshoe stuck up his ass.”

But for all the knocks that restrictor-plate racing takes as being nothing more than a 200-mph blender that spits out a bunch of lucky dogs in the finishing order come race’s end, that’s not so much the case in the ARCA Racing Series. The field isn’t as deep, the packs not as large, the traffic not as congested. As important as the drafting side of things may be, there’s far more room for a single driver to power his way to the front through his own volition. Just look at Allgaier’s triumph back in 2008, when he blew by Joey Logano on the backstretch coming to the checkered flag.

Allgaier’s move was typical of how to win a plate race in ARCA. To make it to victory lane, a driver is going to have to make a risky move, a “hero or zero” last-lap pass that will give him the win or shuffle the car back. It’s on these last lap charges that a driver’s, well, drive, is most visible.

That was the case on Friday during the Talladega 250. Fans saw Marks try to turn a top 10 into a top five, only to fall to ninth as a result. Fans saw Arpin, despite running in the top five with a finish that would guarantee he kept the points lead all but assured, go for the win anyway, then spin himself out trying to get his third checkered flag in a row.

Fans saw Sheltra, even with yet another busted-up set of fenders, grit it out at the finish, charging with reckless abandon to a second-place result that was shades of Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s similar banzai run to the front of February’s Daytona 500.

And fans saw Armstrong go from leading almost the entire first half of the race from the pole, to getting mired in traffic and forced to make a late-race charge to the front. Then, once back in contention, he was able to blast by Grant Enfinger to take the lead for good – his first career win in ARCA.

So no, the stats don’t lie about the road to the ARCA title going through Talladega… but what the racing on track shows is worth 1,000 stats. And based on what was seen Friday, I still believe there’s at least four horses raring to go after this year’s ARCA crown.

Further Observations

  • No one can doubt Mikey Kile‘s aggression on the racetrack, but he’s been responsible in some way or another for triggering three wrecks in the last two races. This week, Kile made contact with the No. 52 of Bill Baird coming down the superstretch into turn 1, and triggered the only Big One of Friday’s 250-mile race, damaging or destroying nine cars – including those of contenders Ricky Carmichael and James Buescher, as well as teammate Mark Thompson. Between these wrecks and losing two cars at Salem (though those were apparently the result of a mechanical failure), the word this week may well be a case of “needing to slow down to go faster” for Kile – and to stay out of trouble, of course. Let’s not forget the bullring of Toledo is next on the schedule….
  • After all the flak that ARCA took at Daytona this past February for the amount of wrecks in its races, its licensing procedures, etc. from a horde of media who, until a certain brunette took the track, couldn’t give a damn about the racing, it was certainly refreshing to see the ARCA regulars be the stars of their own show. It was a show, by the way, which just happened to be the cleanest race run at Talladega the entire weekend as well. To all the naysayers out there questioning whether or not ARCA should be racing on the superspeedways… take one look at Friday’s race and shut up.
  • Hal Martin scored his first top-10 finish in ARCA competition since a ninth-place result at Kansas last October, finishing 10th while driving in a last-minute relief deal for VMS in the No. 35 Zaxby’s entry that John Wes Townley was supposed to run. It was an admirable performance for Martin, who wasn’t officially told that he would be driving the No. 35 until Wednesday – less than 48 hours before the drop of the green flag. The Louisiana native, who was pleased with the finish despite being shuffled to the back of the lead pack after making a bid for the lead, told Frontstretch Saturday that he has signed a contract with the VMS operation to drive full-time for them in ARCA competition in 2011 should sponsorship be secured. Martin, who has driven for both VMS and Mark Gibson Racing in 2010, hopes to run up to four more races this season in order to preserve his rookie status for 2011. As for sponsorship from Zaxby’s, Martin confirmed to Frontstretch that their partnership was strictly a one-race deal, as both he and the team were “unsure of the company’s future in the sport of auto racing.”

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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