The summer stretch continues for the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season as they head east to “The Tricky Triangle” known as Pocono Raceway, located in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.
It will be the 15th race of the season when the ARCA drivers hit the track Friday afternoon for the FORTS USA 150. And with six races remaining, the championship points race heats up between the top five drivers including Michael Self, Bret Holmes, Christian Eckes, Travis Braden and Joe Graf Jr., who all still have a realistic shot at winning the title. But some will need extra help in order to have a chance at the championship.
Last week’s winner and breakout star, Chandler Smith, will look to carry that momentum over to the 2.5-mile racetrack. While Smith has no starts at Pocono, the 17-year-old did compete in last month’s open test.
“This biggest thing I learned in the test is discipline,” he said. “The main thing is going to be passing. We were extremely strong when we went there. We all felt like if we raced, we were going to whoop the field. The main thing is being able to race around the aero and getting used to that much side force.”
While Smith doesn’t have the experience at Pocono, his teammate Michael Self does. And overall, his experience has been alright for the most part but he wants to do better. He has two starts at Pocono with a best finish of third in 2017 when Self did not compete with Venturini Motorsports. Self’s only start with Venturini came last month where he started third and finished 11th.
Self hopes to have a better outcome this time around.
“Our first race here a few weeks ago was definitely frustrating,” Self says. “We struggled with balance throughout practice but felt like we made progress on it and had an idea of which direction we needed to go during the race. Then, as soon as we rolled off the grid, we started losing power due to the alternator going bad. It kind of just went downhill from there as we had an axle issue around halfway, and then we completely lost power with about five laps to go when it was looking like we might’ve still been able to manage a top-10. I’m definitely wanting to put all that in the rearview mirror this weekend and put together a clean day at a track that I really enjoy going to.”
Self competed in the open test last month but noted that it did not go as well as he hoped.
“On test day I was overdriving it really bad,” he said. “I watched the Dartfish video and decided that I was going to calm down and we went out and finished third that day.”
Christian Eckes will have twice the track time when he visits Pocono Raceway Friday afternoon. Eckes will be competing in the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports truck and will have plenty of practice time to get the handle of the track.
“Pocono has always been a place I’ve enjoyed going to,” said Eckes. “It’s pretty flat, and for whatever reason, I’ve always been good at places like that. We have a little bit of momentum coming in and we’re really excited to get back to the track. It hasn’t been an easy year by any means, but I’m confident our JBL Team can get us back on track at Pocono this weekend.”
Eckes has three starts dating back to his first race in June of 2018, all for Venturini Motorsports. His best finish came recently in last month’s race, where the New York native finished third after starting ninth.
It will be hard to stop the Venturini Motorsports powerhouse team, as Smith won the race at Iowa with Eckes finishing second and Self in third.
With a disappointing couple of weeks and races, Joe Graf Jr. finally earned a top-10 finish at Iowa last weekend, placing ninth. Sitting fifth in the championship points standings, Graf hopes that top-10 finish will be the spark that he needs to go on a tear for the last six races of the season.
“Hopefully, we can have a good finish on Friday afternoon, we desperately need it,” said Graf who sits fifth in the championship standings. “We’ve been OK this year – definitely not the performances or finishes we would be ecstatic with, but everyone at Chad Bryant Racing continues to work hard knowing we’re capable of contending for race wins.”
Even though Graf earned a top-10 finish last week, the Chad Bryant Racing driver is hungry for a win heading into Pocono.
“I’m ready to win, I go to the race track every weekend wanting to win,” he added. “Pocono would be a great place to do it. To sweep the season for Chad Bryant Racing and to get my second career ARCA Menards Series win at a place where I’ll have a lot of friends and family cheering me on, that’s a big deal.”
“It’s not going to be that easy though – just driving to the front and staying there. It’s a competitive field and there hasn’t been a lot of falloff between those running in the top-10. At the same time, that can be frustrating but it’s also like motivation.”
Graf has three starts at Pocono, earning two top-10 finishes with a best finish of seventh in his first outing in June of 2018. In last month’s race, he finished eighth after starting sixth.
While Graf has a little bit of experience at Pocono, his teammate Corey Heim will be making his speedway debut this weekend at “The Tricky Triangle.” Despite not having any racing starts at Pocono, Heim competed in the open test last month. The Chad Bryant Racing driver is excited about his debut and will take the time he needs in order to get up to speed.
“Very excited about my speedway debut in ARCA,” said Heim who finished sixth in the series’ most recent race at Iowa Speedway. “I’m very fortunate that Chad Bryant Racing and my crew chief Paul (Andrews) continue to give me fast race cars and I know sooner or later – it will be time to shine in Victory Lane.”
This is the biggest race track I’ve ever competed on in my racing career, so while that’s exciting, it can also be a little bit intimidating too. Luckily, I have a lot of good people around me that can help.”
“It’s important to make sure we get our No. 22 Speedway Children’s Charities Ford Fusion dialed in during practice, qualify up front and then see what happens in 60 laps. It will be a quick race and I think strategy will be crucial for the winning move.”
With Ty Majeski making all six starts and being quite successful in most of them, Heim will be in the car for the rest of the season until the season finale at Kansas in October.
Making a return to the ARCA Series after a short hiatus is Willie Mullins as his family-owned No.3 team returns to the track. It’ll be the first time since Charlotte in May where we will see the Virginia native on track. When Mullins gets on track Friday, it will almost like a homecoming race for his team.
“A lot of our crew live in the Pocono area, so it’s a homecoming for them to get to run their local track,” Mullins explained. “Kevin Belmont, our spotter, is from up there. George Kerner and all of those guys, that is where their home is. It’s kind of a homecoming for them and I’m glad we can run their local track.”
Mullins goal and mindset is simple; finish the race and leave the track without any major incident.
“We want to come out of there and not tear up a race car,” Mullins said. “We’ve raced two times this year and we’ve left the track with torn up cars two times this year. We’re expecting a top-15 finish; we just need to go out there and not tear up the car.”
After starting 19th in last week’s race at Iowa, Bret Holmes and the family-owned No. 23 team finished eighth. Coming into Pocono, Holmes has five starts and recently earned his best career track finish of fifth in last month’s race.
“Even though we had a top-five finish last time at Pocono Raceway, we’re still working hard to improve on that run. Before that race, I felt like Pocono was my worst track. After that top-five run, it gave me a lot more confidence heading into this race. I think there’s still some things I need to work on and figure out. There are only a few races left in the season, so we’re putting in as much work as possible to come out with the best finishes we can. Every position matters at this point when it’s so close in the point standings.”
Since 1983, Pocono Raceway has seen a grand total of 69 ARCA races with a wins list that has seen multiple winners with ARCA legends and future NASCAR superstars who all made their mark by winning at Pocono. Former ARCA Series competitor and legend Tim Steele has the most wins with nine victories.
Other drivers on the entry list include Bobby Gerhart, J.J. Pack, Don Thompson, Ed Pompa, Tommy Vigh Jr., Dick Doheny, Todd Gilliland, Travis Braden, Raphael Lessard, Austin Wayne Self, Sean Corr, Thad Moffitt, Brad Smith, Mike Basham and Tim Richmond.
It will be a one day show for the ARCA Menards Series drivers with the only practice session scheduled for Friday morning at 9 a.m. ET on arcaracing.com and General Tire pole qualifying at 1:35 p.m. ET, also live on arcaracing.com.
The FORTS USA 150 is slated to get underway a little after 4 p.m. ET with a 60 lap dash live on Fox Sports 1.