After a few weeks off, the ARCA Menards Series drivers are back on-track this Saturday night at the historic and rough racetrack at Salem Speedway.
It will be the 18th of 20 races of the 2019 season and will mark only three races left until the season finale at Kansas Speedway in October. Just two drivers are more than likely fighting for the championship at this point in the season and it’s the two Venturini Motorsports driver Christian Eckes and Michael Self. It would take something catastrophic to happen to these two drivers to bring in a third driver and even then, they would need a lot of help.
If Eckes loses the championship this season, it might be because he missed this race back in April when the Venturini Motorsports driver was sick the night before due to food poisoning. However, Eckes does not think about that night and is focused on winning this weekend.
“I try not to think too much about what happened at Salem early on in the season,” says Eckes who takes a mature approach to the situation. “Sure, it happened and set us back in the standings, it sucks. But there’s nothing I can do to change the past. It’s all about now and what we do moving forward. We’ve had plenty of opportunities after that race that we could have closed the gap further and didn’t. Those are the races that I think about the most in this championship battle, not so much that one.”
With Eckes and Self pretty much the only two competing for the championship, Eckes looks forward to the next three races.
“I’m really looking forward to battling with Michael to end this year out, Eckes added. “Self and his entire 25 team have been on their game the entire year and definitely made it interesting. I’m just really looking forward to continuing the momentum we’ve built over the last few races.”
Eckes will be pulling double duty this weekend by driving the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra at Las Vegas Friday night and he will then head to Salem to drive his No. 15 Toyota. At Salem, Eckes has four starts with one win that occurred in the April 2018 race. His other stats include one top five and three top-10s with 163 laps led.
One driver hoping to keep Eckes from the win is his teammate and previous race winner Michael Self. Self is hoping to better his fourth-place finish at DuQuoin on Labor Day weekend.
“Salem is probably my favorite short track on the schedule so I’m excited to get back and race it again, but expectation-wise I know this is a different day with different conditions than we had in the Spring,” says the 28-year-old driver from Utah.
Not only is Self the defending winner of this race, but the team will also be bringing back the same car he won with in April and it will likely boost his confidence.
“While we’re bringing back the car we won with, we have to expect that things will be different and we aren’t just going to walk in and pick up where we left off without some work and adaptation.”
Having an impressive track record that includes one win with three starts and one pole, Chandler Smith is hoping to go back-to-back in the fall race. He won last year’s fall race after leading all but one lap. Smith has an average finish of 5.0 with 319 laps led.
“It’s always nice having some time off but I’m ready to get back at it,” says Smith. Salem is easily one of my favorite places to run. We only have the one win to show, but I feel the other two races we ran there just got away from us. Last year during the spring race we were battling our teammate (Christian Eckes) for the lead on the final lap and blew a tire. And back in April, we had the car to get it done but the race ended early because of the rain. Sometimes that’s how it goes in racing. I’ll be ready this week.”
Rounding out the Venturini Motorsports powerhouse stable is rookie and up-and-comer, Gavin Harlien, who will be piloting the No. 55 Toyota paying tribute to Tony Venturini. It will be Harlien’s first start at Salem this weekend.
“There’s only so much you can do to prepare for a track like Salem,” added the University of Arizona senior. “Knowing it’s going to be a dog fight I’ve watched lots of film and have spent a good amount of time talking with my crew chief Frank Kimmel to get a better idea of what to expect. This race surely will test my endurance. It looks fun. I can’t wait to get back in the car and feel those bumps flying through the turns in three and four. Everything I’ve seen and heard about Salem points towards having to manhandle the car to have success.”
On the other hand, rookie Corey Heim hopes to break up the Venturini Motorsports powerhouse team. The Chad Bryant Racing driver competed in the April race earlier this year, where Heim started sixth and recorded a fifth-place finish. This season, the youngster has six top-fives and 10 top-10 finishes in the 2019 season.
“I feel good about going to Salem Speedway,” said Heim. “The is the first time I get to use prior knowledge of an ARCA track to improve on it, so that should help me out a lot this weekend. “I feel like our No. 22 Chad Bryant Racing team is carrying a lot of momentum, we just need to execute on Saturday and win the race.”
Heim and his No. 22 team tested at Salem last Friday to give him more track time. The Marietta, Georgia native is hoping for a win in Saturday night’s short-track.
“I want to win on Saturday night, I think we’ve proven we’re capable of winning, just need everything to go our way. If for some reason we can’t win on Saturday, I’ve got one more chance at Lucas Oil Raceway next month, where there’s nothing else that matters to me except winning.”
His teammate Joe Graf Jr. has three starts at Salem with a best finish of ninth this past April. Graf Jr. has one DNF which came in the fall 2018 race and an average finish of 10.3.
“It feels good getting back to short track racing,” said Graf Jr. who sits fifth in the ARCA championship standings. “I genuinely like Salem Speedway, but it’s a not an easy track to negotiate. It’s a track that takes a lot of concentration and focus.”
“It keep getting better and better with every race on Salem, but I’d like to leave there on Saturday night with our best finish of the season.”
It has been a difficult season for the No. 77 for the Mahwah, New Jersey native who has recorded one top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. Despite those stats, Graf Jr. is wanting nothing more than a win this Saturday night.
“I want to win so bad,” added Graf. “That’s why I get behind the wheel of our race car every week. I need to win for a lot of reasons. I have a great partner in EAT SLEEP RACE who has stuck through our team through the bumps in the road this season and my guys at the Chad Bryant Racing team who have given everything they can to bring me the fastest racecar possible.”
Like his teammate Heim, Graf Jr. also participated in the test last Friday at Salem.
Sitting third in the championship points standings is Bret Holmes and his No. 23 family owned team. Holmes finished 10th in the April race and his stats at Salem have been decent. In five starts, he has one top-five and four top-10 finishes with a best finish of third in his first outing at Salem three years ago in 2016.
“I like the tracks with a worn-out, rough surface. I’m just kind of used to racing at places like Salem (Speedway). Tire management is big at a short track like Salem. The two corners are completely different, too. It’s just a fun track to race. Earlier this year, we tried something a little too extreme on the setup and it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. We’re going into this weekend with a set up that we know will be better and I’m excited to unload and get on track for practice. We’ve run well there in the past and I don’t see this weekend being any different.”
With Salem being a throwback race, Ed Pompa and the No. 11 Andy Hillenburg team have chosen to pay tribute to the retired NASCAR broadcaster Darrell Waltrip.
“With Darrell retiring from the broadcast booth this year, I thought it would be cool to do a DW throwback, as a ‘thank you’,” Pompa said. “We are running the No. 11, which Darrell ran at various times, but this particular scheme was from his No. 17.”
At Salem, Pompa has seven starts with no top-fives or top-10 finishes, but his best finish was 14th twice (2013, 2017), both while driving for Hillenburg.
Colby Howard and the No. 32 Kevin Cywinski team will be competing once again at Salem this weekend. It will be Howard’s first start since Iowa, where he recorded a 10th place finish. The Simpsonville, South Carolina native has just one start at Salem where he finished eighth in his first start at the track driving for former team owner Mason Mitchell.
“I am really looking forward to returning to Salem. We had a good run in the test on Tuesday and should have had a top-five finish in last year’s race until I made a mistake on pit road. This time around, it should be better, because our car is really solid on old tires, which is critical on Salem’s worn out surface.”
Sam Mayer and the No. 21 GMS Racing team are hoping to gain one more spot after they finished second in April after starting ninth.
“Going to Salem for the second time I feel like Mardy (Lindley, crew chief) and I will be even better than we were in the spring. Mardy and the team have worked really hard this year and have made my cars better and better as we go, and I feel no different this weekend. I also know I’m a better, more experienced driver than I was earlier this year. I feel confident that we can compete for a win with our Chevy Accessories Chevrolet. The weather forecast looks good so far, so hopefully, we can run the whole race this time.”
Other drivers on the entry list include Dick Doheny, Tommy Vigh Jr., Ty Gibbs, Travis Braden, Carson Hocevar, Mike Basham, Brad Smith, Scott Melton, Brian Finney, Tim Richmond and Ben Peterson.
In the April 2019 race, Michael Self and the No. 25 team started fourth and led 72 laps before rain came on Lap 101 just past halfway, and gave Self his second win of the season.
Salem Speedway has seen various winners including Austin Theriault, Dalton Sargeant, Christopher Bell, Grant Enfinger, Ken Schrader, Tom Hessert III, Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher, Brennan Poole, Dakoda Armstrong, Justin Lofton, Steve Arpin, Frank Kimmel, Justin Allgaier, Brian Keselowski, Billy Venturini, Joey Miller, Chad Blount, Jason Jarrett, Bill Baird, Tim Steele, Bob Strait, Bob Schacht, Bob Brevak and Bob Keselowski, to name a few.
It will be a one-day show as always for the ARCA Menards Series drivers. On-track action begins on Saturday afternoon with an hour and a half practice beginning at 1 p.m. ET with coverage on arcaracing.com. General Tire Pole Series Qualifying is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET where all drivers will have two laps to record a time.
Then a little after 7:15 p.m. ET the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Fall Classic 200 will begin with 200 laps live on MAVTV and live timing/scoring on arcaracing.com.