ELKO, Minn. – It’s been a remarkable season for Travis Braden so far.
Braden, a two-time champion of the ARCA/CRA Super Series, made his first foray into the ARCA Menards Series in 2015 and scored an improbable victory in his debut race at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.
A graduate of West Virginia University with dual degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering, Braden transitioned to a full-time driver with RFMS Racing at the end of the 2017 season.
After a fifth-place finish in the 2018 championship battle, Braden and team were reenergized for a title run in 2019. The Don Fike-owned squad, which now has only two full-time employees including Braden, had some great performances in 2018, including three top-five finishes in the final six races of the season and a chance to win at DuQuoin before a late-race incident shortened his day after leading 17 laps. Hopes were high that momentum would carry over into 2019 and to some extent it had.
Braden scored ten top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of 2019, including a season-best fourth at Madison Int’l Speedway in June. He had led the series championship standings early in the season, too, taking two turns at the top as he and Michael Self traded the lead in April and May.
Braden, as one of those two full-time employees, is as hands-on as he can be. He works on the race cars during the week, along with Casey Swift, utilizing that mechanical engineering degree. They are assisted by long-time NASCAR crew chief Jim Long at the race track.
“Jim is working for us only at the events as of right now, so it is just Casey and I full time,” Braden said. “Jim coordinates with us on a daily basis in regards to the setups and we go from there.”
Long was the winning crew chief when Ricky Rudd won at Indianapolis in 1997 and guided former Cup champion Terry Labonte to his final career victory in 2003 at Darlington. Adding him to the team, even just on weekends, is a change Braden hopes gives his “little team that could” an extra boost to get back to victory lane and allows them to stay in contention for the series championship.
“The recent changes at RFMS Racing are not something that we plan to dwell and carry on and on,” he said. “We are all very anxious as we are gearing up for these final eight races, and that is the sole focus of each member of our team right now. It has already been a pleasure working with Jim, and the working relationship he has already built with us will be, I believe, very valuable to our success.”
That extra boost could come in handy in this Saturday’s Menards 250 presented by MatrixCare at Elko Speedway. Not only is the race one Braden and his team believe they have a chance to win, it’s also located less than an hour from his team sponsor MatrixCare’s headquarters. The company is the presenting sponsor of the race, and will have a lot of people in attendance watching Braden go for his first win of the season.
“This was a great time for us as a group last year, and I know how MatrixCare does things – so this year’s will be even bigger,” Braden said. “The added pressure to win will surely make this one exciting. As a driver, you’re always one hundred percent, but it just seems like days like these always have an added sense of the spectacular show that you always hope for. If we can pull this thing into Victory Lane, anticipate one of the largest and loudest celebrations you’ve ever seen!”
The tight confines of the three-eighths mile Elko oval could lead to one of the more physical races of the ARCA Menards Series season. Braden, who also has to work on his own racecars, isn’t one to intentionally go out and knock fenders with the competition. But he also realizes he may not have a choice, especially late in the going.
“It’s always intense on short tracks, and this is the shortest, so you do the math,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to be pressure-filled start-to-finish. Elko tends to allow for two grooves of racing in the corners, but those tiny straightaways sure get narrow if you end up side-by side. Sparks will fly at some point. You will have to be aggressive and take risks at some point in the race if you want to go to the winner’s circle. There’s no room to breathe until you get there.”