CONCORD, N.C. — When Christian Eckes fell ill and missed the third race of the ARCA Menards Series season, he knew his road to winning a championship was going to be a long one.
But the 18-year-old from Middletown, N.Y., could never have envisioned the roller-coaster ride that he went on to secure the title.
Driving for Venturini Motorsports, Eckes became the first driver since Tim Steele in 1997 to miss a race and still claim ARCA’s national championship trophy, doing so with four wins, 13 top fives and 17 top 10s in the 19 races he started.
The one race he didn’t see the green flag in, however, is part of what makes the New York teenager’s storybook year — and comeback — so fascinating.
Eckes was taken to a local hospital following qualifying for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 at Salem (Ind.) Speedway in April, where he was diagnosed with an esophageal tear in his trachea due to complications from food poisoning. He was not medically cleared to start the event and was replaced by Harrison Burton for the 200-lapper.
At that point, Eckes went from leading the ARCA standings to eighth in points and 105 behind leader Travis Braden, beginning a stiff climb get back to the top.
“We could have never expected what happened at Salem; you can’t plan for something like that,” Eckes told SPEED SPORT. “I mean, I felt horrible that night into race day … and it’s a terrible feeling having to sit there and watch a race you’re supposed to be in. It makes for a great story now, but at that point … at that point we didn’t want to think about what it meant at all. We just wanted to get past it.”
With 17 races to go, Eckes didn’t seem to be in a precarious position at the time, but after a crash at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway left him last in a 26-car field and buried even deeper in points, there was cause for concern in the young driver’s mind.
“Really after Salem, I really wasn’t concerned about it. (The gap) was only 80 points then and we still had 17 or 16 races to go. It was really the crash at Talladega,” said Eckes about what put doubt in his mind. “Even after that, the seventh places and stuff where we were losing points on a regular basis to Michael (Self) at … that was big. That was the disheartening thing, was when we wouldn’t have anything stupid happen and we were still finishing seventh or breaking something in those races. Those were the biggest things.
“It’s hard to come back from those, but man, we found a way.”
That way involved a near-perfect run through the final seven races of the season.
Starting at Iowa Speedway in July, Eckes put together seven-straight top-two finishes to close the year, including victories at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway and the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds which vaulted him right back into the hunt as Self faltered with mechanical trouble late in the year.
A third victory in the season finale at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 18, after he came in with a slim 15-point margin over Self, was more than enough to ensure Eckes left the 1.5-mile oval with the big prize.
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