Last year's ARCA Menards Series finale at Kansas Speedway had little championship drama, as Sheldon Creed needed to only present his car for practice to become the 35th driver to become the series champion in ARCA's then 67-year history.
This year, it's a vastly different story.
Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) leads the championship standings over Venturini Motorsports teammate Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota) by just 15 points heading into Friday night's ARCA Kansas 150.
Self, with four wins this season, led the standings from the sixth race of the season at Toledo Speedway through the 19th race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway outside of Indianapolis. He had been chased down by Eckes, who held the lead briefly after the second race of the season but dropped back to fourth after missing the third race of the year at Salem Speedway due to illness.
Eckes didn't have much luck in his return at Talladega Superspeedway. A crash near the midway point resulted in a 26th-place finish, and leaving him even further back, in seventh place, 180 points behind.
Eckes won the following race at Nashville and began a run of thirteen top-ten finishes in the next fourteen races. Other than an eleventh-place finish at Elko Speedway, where he was spun out of fourth position on the final lap after contact while battling for the position with Self, his worst finish over that stretch was four seventh-place finishes. In the six races since Elko, he's finished no worse than second with a pair of wins.
The march to the top of the heap wasn't an easy one for Eckes since Self was also competing at a very high level.
After Elko, where the two contenders tangled on the final lap, Self led by 115 points. A comfortable margin, but not insurmountable. While Eckes was finishing in the top two, Self was right there with him. A pair of third-place finishes at Iowa and Pocono only ceded ten points to Eckes, which was regained when Self won on the dirt at Springfield.
The advantage was again 110 points with four races to go.
Eckes won at DuQuoin and lopped 35 points off of Self's advantage. He'd need to make up 85 points in three races if he was to be the series champion. He caught a break at Salem when Self dropped out with mechanical problems, a 65-point gift that turned late-season momentum into Eckes' favor.
A second-place finish in the final short track race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway, combined with a sixth-place finish for Self, meant Eckes regained the points lead for the first time since the second race of the year.
The 15-point cushion over Self will give Eckes a slight buffer at Kansas. Depending on where Self finishes, he can finish two to four positions behind him and still lock up the title.
For Eckes, the chase to catch Self wasn't full of tension. Rather, he and his team methodically went about their business and performed the way they knew they could when the season started.
"It's all one race at a time for us," Eckes said. "We don't get nervous because the point situation has gotten closer. We knew we could run this good when the season started. We had some mediocre runs in the middle of the season but we got past those and we've been in the top two the last six races. That's exactly how we felt we should be all season long."
Despite now holding the upper hand, Eckes knows he has his work cut out for him. Self is a former winner at Kansas, taking the victory in 2017, and is one of the series' best big-track drivers.
"We have to go to Kansas and race for it. It's going to be tough," Eckes said. "Michael is really good at the mile and a half tracks. We're looking forward to it. It feels good to be in the position we are now. We really haven’t had the pressure on us all year, so it’s definitely a change of pace. At the end of the day, we just need to go do what we do and be perfect at Kansas to finish the job.”
The last lap spin at Elko was a turning point of sorts. Eckes and crew chief Kevin Reed sat down and discussed what they needed to do to get their season turned around. Mistakes were the biggest culprit, and Eckes and Reed figured out a way to eliminate them. The results were immediate and striking.
"After the Elko race we all sat down and realized that we needed to be better," Eckes said. "We had to cut out the mistakes and capitalize on our opportunities better. It’s taken a lot of hard work and effort to get on this roll but it’s paid off.”
The ARCA Kansas 150 at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway will close the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season on Friday, October 18. Practice opens the day at 1 pm ET/12 n CT followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 6 pm ET/5 pm CT. The 100-lap/150-mile feature event will go green at 8:30 pm ET/7:30 pm CT and will be shown live on FS2 with an immediate replay on FS1. ARCA for Me members can follow live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates throughout all on-track sessions free at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login.
-ARCA Menards Series Press Release and Photo