Success breeds fondness.
That's how it works when racecar drivers have success at any particular racetrack. Even if it isn't a track that a driver looks forward to going to, a top finish tends to turn a track that wasn't a favorite into one the driver might have a fondness for.
Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) will make his fourth career start at Lucas Oil Raceway in Saturday night's Herr's Potato Chips 200. Known as one of the more difficult tracks to get around because the racing line is next to the outside wall and the bottom lane, where all the passing is done, is slick with very little grip, Eckes' initial results at the 0.686-mile oval in suburban Indianapolis weren't stellar.
He finished 26th after a mechanical failure in 2016. The 2017 race resulted in a tenth-place run, still not up to the lofty standards the Middletown, New York native sets for himself.
So it would be easy to assume Lucas Oil Raceway wasn't one of Eckes' favorite tracks. But that all changed in 2017.
Eckes started from the General Tire Pole and led 171 laps en route to the victory, his third of the season. It was the first time Eckes swept both the pole award and the race win, and as a 17-year-old at the time, it sent him into his off-season on a high note.
Eckes will be looking to recapture that magic on Saturday night, and it couldn't come at a more crucial time. Just five points behind his teammate Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota) in the battle for the series title, a win by Eckes would almost certainly give him the points lead and give him an advantage heading into the final race at Kansas Speedway on October 18.
"I liked this place forever, but we had some bad luck there in the beginning," Eckes said. "We've always been fast, but we've had a lot of bad luck. Our finishes haven't really spoken for themselves, but we finally showed it last year. We've always been fast every year, even when we were testing here I always thought we had the best car. Last year we were finally able to show it. We tested last week and we had a good car. I think we at least have a direction to go so we can try to make it two in a row."
It's been a long haul for Eckes to even be in position to battle for the series championship. He missed the third race of the season, at Salem Speedway, due to illness. Going into the race at Salem, Eckes led the standings by 65 points, and afterwards, he was 80 points behind in fifth. The next race, at Talladega Superspeedway, he finished 26th and gave up another 100 points to Self who was now leading.
"Despite the bad luck, Eckes and his team have never given up. And late in the season, they've hit their stride. In the last five races, they've collected two wins and haven't finished outside the top two. That has allowed him to close the gap, which was 105 points five races ago, to just five points.
"As a whole we put the bad races behind us and go forward," he said. "It's been a strong point for all of us. It hasn't been the best of years. We missed a race and are still fighting for the championship. We've been strong. I wish we could go back and redo those mistakes. It's a real testament to the team that we're still in it."
Eckes knows that the position he was in forced him to race differently. He had to go for wins. He had to count every point. He had to be the hunter. It certainly worked to his advantage.
"We just got to a row of good tracks," Eckes said of his late season streak. "We used the first 13 races as a learning experience. We've made up for our mistakes. We're bringing faster racecars than we ever have before."
The Herr's Potato Chips 200 at Lucas Oil Raceway is set for Saturday night, October 5. Practice starts the day's activities at 2 pm ET, with General Tire Pole Qualifying at 5 pm ET. The 200-lap main event, scheduled for live broadcast MAVTV, will go green shortly after 8 pm ET. ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. For more information, please visit TrackEnterprises.com.
-ARCA Press Release
-Photo credit: Speed51.com