While the ARCA Menards Series championship contenders head into the April 14 Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 at Salem Speedway looking to score as many points as possible, several part-time drivers are looking to shake things up and steal not only those valuable points but the spotlight as well.
Last year, Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) was a part-time driver looking for his first career ARCA Menards Series win. Eckes earned his first series win on the daunting Salem high banks holding off his Venturini Motorsports teammate Chandler Smith (No. 20 Craftsman/828 Logistics Toyota) in a furious dash to the finish that resulted in Smith finding the outside wall on the final lap. This season, he’s a three-time series winner, the defending race winner, and the current series championship leader.
The third member of the Venturini squad, Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota) also transitioned from a part-time status in 2018 to a full-time ride in 2019. Self capitalized almost immediately by winning the last series race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
Eckes and Self are both chasing after the series title but will need to deal with their part-time teammate to get the maximum amount of points leaving Salem.
Smith, a high school student from Talking Rock, Georgia, is still just 16 years of age and by rule not eligible to race on tracks longer that one mile. That means all that matters to him is going for race wins, something he’s already proven to be adept at. He led 199 of 200 laps at Salem last fall to score his second career series win.
The championship contenders will have to deal with Smith, and they will also have to beat other teenage short track specialists Carson Hocevar (No. 28 Scott’s/Berger Chevrolet/KBR Development Chevrolet) and Corey Heim (No. 22 Speedway Children’s Charities Ford), both of whom have proven to be capable of racing to win in their brief ARCA Menards Series careers.
Hocevar, a highly decorated USAC quarter midget champion from Portage, Michigan, is the youngest late model winner ever at his home track, the legendary Berlin Raceway. Hocevar earned his first career General Tire Pole Award at Berlin last season at the age of 15 and scored his first ever top five finish in the race. Hocevar ran up front at Five Flags before mechanical problems sidelined him before the finish.
“I ran at Salem a few years ago in a pro late model, made a few mistakes and wasn’t comfortable near the wall,” Hocevar said. “Now having a ton more experience in stock cars along with running the race track where you need to run, up by the wall. I’ve had to run the wall at Salem, Winchester, and Lucas Oil Raceway. We tested last week and I was very comfortable with the track, and we were able to work on our long run balance. We have a few ideas to get our KBR Development Chevrolet better, so I’m real excited to get back next weekend with a whole field of cars on track and see where exactly we stack up.”
Heim, in his series debut for Chad Bryant Racing, finished fifth at Five Flags. Despite his young age – he is still just 16 years old – he finished second in the CARS Tour standings in 2018. He tested at Salem last week in preparation for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200, his first laps on the demanding high-banked half-mile.
“What a cool place. I love a race track that is as challenging as Salem Speedway and for my first time there in an ARCA car, I cannot wait to get back there for the race,” Heim said. “It’s a fast race track with bumps all over and I feel like if you’re not up high in turns three and four, nearly touching the wall, you’re not getting around there fast enough. It’s probably one of my favorite race tracks.”
Heim feels like he can come out of the box quick at Salem, which will be just his second career ARCA Menards Series start, and compete to win.
“Honestly, I feel like we can be a contender to win the race,” he said. “My ARCA debut at Five Flags went pretty good. I felt like we were pretty competitive and ended the night with a top-five finish. I feel like Joe Gibbs Racing and Venturini Motorsports will be the teams you’ll have to beat next weekend, but our Chad Bryant Racing team can do that. A good run at Salem will be good momentum for my next ARCA race at Nashville in May.”
One driver that is not a short track specialist just yet but has had success racing in the state of Indiana is Tanner Gray (No. 54 Valvoline/Durst Toyota). Gray, a native of Artesia, New Mexico, was the youngest winner ever in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock division when he won at Las Vegas at the age of 17 years, 11 months, and 18 days. In 2018, he won eight national event final rounds, including the famed U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, about 90 minutes north of Salem. Gray, who is racing part time in the ARCA Menards Series in 2018, finished second in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Irwindale in his most recent race on March 30.
Other part-time drivers in high-profile rides that should factor in deciding who goes to victory lane include Ty Gibbs (No. 18 Monster Energy/ORCA Coolers/Terrible Herbst/Advance Auto Parts Toyota), the 16-year-old grandson of legendary NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs. The son of former NASCAR driver Coy Gibbs, he made his series debut at Five Flags and made a last lap pass on Eckes to finish second. In addition, GMS Racing has entered 15-year-old Wisconsin native Sam Mayer (No. 21 Chevy Accessories Chevrolet) at Salem. Mayer, part of the Drivers Edge Development program, ran near the front of the field at Five Flags before he too was sidelined with mechanical issues.
Practice for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 is set for 11 am ET on Saturday, April 13 with General Tire Pole Qualifying scheduled for 3 pm ET that afternoon. The green flag on round three of the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season will drop shortly after 2 pm ET on Sunday, April 14. Discounted tickets are available at selected Menards locations in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. The race will be televised live on MAVTV and ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free at ARCARacing.com/login.
-ARCA Menards Series Press Release and Photo