At any given point in a season, drivers that chase the points championship in any racing series often look back and see where they left a significant number of points on the table. Whether it was an early-season crash that put the car out of the race early or a mechanical failure that resulted in being many laps down, when the season is over those points all add up.
For Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota), he’s in the thick of the ARCA Menards Series title fight despite experiencing the confluence of a number of unfortunate circumstances throughout the season’s first 13 races.
He started the season off on the right foot, not only with the General Tire Pole Award and a third-place finish in the season opener at Daytona, he backed it up with the pole in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener at Daytona as well. He matched his Daytona finish with another third-place run in the second event of the season at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, but from there the wheels nearly came off on his season.
An overnight illness before the third race of the season at Salem Speedway forced Eckes to miss the race. He picked up 25 points for participating in practice and qualifying but gave up nearly an entire race’s worth of points – 220 to be exact – to his fellow championship contender Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota). Back in the seat at the fourth round of the year at Talladega Superspeedway, Eckes was expected to match his performance from Daytona. A mid-race crash left him last in the 26-car field and he gave up another 100 points to his rivals.
With 320 points given up to the competition it might be expected that Eckes and his Kevin Reed-led Venturini Motorsports team would have written off their chances at the season championship. But headed into Friday night’s Fans with Benefits 150 at Iowa Speedway, Eckes sits just 115 points behind leader Self. That gap would be closer still had the two not come together in the final corner of the final lap at the most recent series race at Elko Speedway last Saturday night. The two were battling for fourth position on the final lap when contact was made, sending Eckes spinning and allowing Self to cross the line in fourth. Eckes gave up another 30 points to Self in one corner. Had that not happened, and the two finished right where they were running, Eckes would have turned the 85-point deficit he had entering the race into a 50-point deficit heading into Iowa.
Despite the back luck, Eckes has not given up on giving his teammate a run for his money.
“I’d rather we didn’t give up all of those points early in the season, but that’s where we’re at,” Eckes said. “We aren’t out of it by any means, but we have to stop giving away points. We need to start getting the finishes and if we can do that the points situation should start to take care of itself.”
He's headed back to the 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway trying to close out the final third of the season and get back into the championship fight. It’s been a good track for Eckes over the years, and he’s hoping that trend continues this weekend.
“I have run pretty good in the past at Iowa,” he said. “I ran the truck race last year and ran well there in 2016. I haven’t been able to keep up with the racetrack and make the adjustments that needed to be made. We are going to turn that around this time and hopefully get our second win of the season.”
The Fans with Benefits 150 on Friday night kicks off a full weekend of racing that culminates with Saturday night’s Iowa 300 for the NTT Data IndyCar Series. Eckes is intrigued by the IndyCar equipment but wishes he had the opportunity to watch them at the track on a weekend when he isn’t also racing.
“We are going to be focused on what we’re doing so we probably won’t have a lot of time to check out what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s cool to watch them practice and see how fast they’re going. It’s pretty incredible. But in the end we are there for one reason and we’re going to stay focused on going for the win.”
Eckes will put experience gained in the NASCAR Gander Truck Series as he attempts to close the points gap between himself and leader Self. Eckes has made two starts with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander Trucks, starting from the pole in both. He led 57 laps in his most recent start at WWT Raceway and was running in the top five when contact from a competitor sent him spinning on the final lap.
“It’s hard to win in the ARCA series but it’s even harder in the Truck Series,” Eckes said. “There are 12 trucks that can win there on a weekly basis. You can get a lot of experience that way. Working with KBM helps when you come back. They have so much access to technology to figure out what we need and how to get it. It makes coming back to ARCA a little easier. I am not saying it is easy in ARCA, but it makes it easier.
“It gets harder and harder as you go up the ladder and luckily I have been with great teams. Fury Racecars in late models and then Venturini Motorsports here in ARCA. The transition from here to Kyle Busch Motorsports has been even smoother. When you have a great team it makes it a lot easier. I can focus on what I need to. So far I feel like the Truck Series has gone smoothly for me. It takes a little bit to get used to. I lost the lead going into turn one on lap one and I kind of forgot I have to drive it that hard. It’s the intangibles that I need to get better at.”
Practice at Iowa Speedway is scheduled for 12:45 pm ET/11:45 am CT with General Tire Pole Qualifying to follow at 4:45 pm ET/3:45 pm CT and the Fans with Benefits 150 to close the night at 9 pm ET/8 pm CT. The race will be televised live flag to flag on MAVTV. ARCA for Me members can access free live timing & scoring, track updates, and live user chat at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. Discounted tickets are available by using coupon code MENARDS15 on any ticket purchase at IowaSpeedway.com, including Saturday’s Iowa 300 for the NNT IndyCar Series.