Race Weekend Central

Access ARCA: On ARCA’s Grandest Stage, Bobby Gerhart’s Performance One of Mastery

Much like the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR, ARCA’s season opener at the world’s center of racing has long been the crown jewel of the series’ schedule… and despite being the first race of a series, an event that’s largely demarcated from the rest of the year. Though the points are scored the same Daytona weekend as they will be later this year at Salem or Springfield, Speedweeks is an entity all its own.

In ARCA, that demarcation is evidenced in more ways than one. Unlike NASCAR, which for the better part of the last decade has followed the Daytona 500 up with a trip out west the very next weekend, ARCA takes anywhere from three weeks to two months between Daytona and its second event. Winning Daytona has also seldom proved to mean anything in terms of capturing the series championship; the last Daytona winner to go on and win the season title was Andy Hillenburg way back in 1995.

And on this Saturday, those looking for a glimpse as to what ARCA’s title Chase is likely to evolve into were left with little to analyze. For while Bobby Gerhart was busy making history with his second consecutive Daytona victory and the seventh of his career, the full timers on the 2011 ARCA tour were largely non-factors over the course of the race.

Chad Hackenbracht and Tom Hessert were each involved in early accidents that relegated them to finishes outside the top 35. Richard Childress Racing’s 1-2 punch proved to be a dud, with Tim George Jr. falling off the pace early and finishing two laps down while polesitter Ty Dillon was unable to get back through traffic after taking damage avoiding an early-race wreck, finishing a disappointing 11th. Even Dakoda Armstrong, returning for a second season with ARCA powerhouse Cunningham Motorsports, struggled to stay in the top 20.

Meanwhile, as Gerhart led a dominating 61 laps in cruising to another Daytona win, the top five was littered with part timers; Chris Buescher scored a runner-up finish in his superspeedway debut, Matt Merrell had a strong reunion tour with Win-Tron Racing’s No. 32 team, Ricky Carmichael earned valuable seat time in preparation for a full Truck Series campaign and Jason Bowles picked up right where he left off in Irwindale, following up a Toyota All-Star Showdown win with a fifth-place finish.

So yes, this ARCA race will go down as race number one of a 19-race slate. But, just as so many before it, it will stand on its own as ARCA’s biggest stage. And that’s perhaps why Gerhart was able to score win number seven at the historic venue, why he continues to make history despite the bevy of dollars and NASCAR talent that descend upon ARCA’s season opener year after year.

Because for Bobby Gerhart Racing, the season starts and ends with Daytona. Sure, the No. 5 team will run a limited schedule across the ARCA ranks this season, including another restrictor-plate race at Talladega in April. And sure, the team has proven capable of competing at tracks other than superspeedways (Gerhart scored top 10s at Pocono and Chicago last season).

But when it comes to testing regimens, there is no outfit that puts more effort into Daytona preparation than BGR. There’s no team in the ARCA ranks that treats Daytona more like what it is than the No. 5 team; its own animal. And that’s perhaps the best reason to explain how Bobby and his brother, the crew chief, have absolutely mastered stock car’s racing ultimate racetrack.

That mastery was on textbook display this Saturday (Feb. 12). For the second year in a row, Gerhart didn’t have to deal with traffic or three-wide racing to score a trophy. Rather, the team picked a strategy before the green flag dropped and stuck with it. In the face of an early part of the race that saw few caution laps by ARCA standards, the No. 5 team didn’t waver from their strategy of staying out and saving fuel. And in doing so, they stayed out front all afternoon, making laps and conserving equipment until the end.

That was all made possible by their racecar’s strength. The testing paid off. It didn’t matter that for most of the final 10 laps, four strong racecars were all lined up directly on Gerhart’s bumper, in perfect position to steal the lead and the win. Because every time Merrell gave Buescher a push down the backstretch or a run entering turn 3, it was never enough to give Buescher’s No. 17 a real shot at clearing Gerhart’s machine.

And that was all made possible by the man behind the wheel, as Gerhart’s line on the racetrack through the final 10-lap charge derailed any chance second through fifth place had of keeping him from Daytona trophy number seven. Lap after lap ’till Gerhart actually took the checkered flag, Darrell Waltrip and the SPEED broadcast booth kept questioning the line of the No. 5 car, which on the exit of turn 4 would jump up a line from the bottom of the track to near the middle.

It was a move that Gerhart repeated again and again, one that had ol’ DW wondering why he’d all but leave the bottom groove open for Buescher to snake his way through.

But here, Gerhart’s extensive experience as an ARCA driver trumped those of two Cup veterans in the booth. This wasn’t the Daytona 500. This was ARCA. And Gerhart realized full well, based on years of plate racing at this level that a sudden, last-lap pass for the lead was highly improbable. After all, these restrictor plates were smaller and allowed for less throttle control.

His car was the most prepared for Daytona of any in the ARCA field, and the two drivers he was competing with weren’t even alive when he started stock car racing. Making the crossover to pass low was going to be a much harder move than trying to shoot out the high side on exit… and the chances that his competition would make that move happen while maintaining enough momentum to clear the stoutest car in the field were, well, nil.

After all, Bobby’s got a seventh trophy to prove it now.

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