CONCORD, N.C. – Everyone loves playing in front of their home crowd, whether it’s a high school baseball game at your school’s home field or a professional golfer teeing off on the hometown links.
Hometown advantage matters so much that certain professional sports leagues schedule their championship games in a neutral stadium as often as possible.
Professional race car drivers very rarely get the opportunity to race at the track where their careers began, because few professional racing sanctioning bodies schedule races at local short tracks. But once you make it up the stock car racing ladder you get to race in front of the home of the entire industry.
Whenever they open the gates at Charlotte Motor Speedway, those who strap into the cars that take to the speedway’s 24-degree banked turns are racing in front of their families, their friends, the people who build and maintain their racecars, and thousands of other industry insiders.
It can mean a lot of pressure, especially for young drivers.
With the entire industry paying attention, everyone wants to perform. The edge between a great day and a bad day can be razor thin, and that can mean a stressful day for those behind the wheel.
Last year, it was a great night for Brandon Jones as he earned his fifth career series victory. He took advantage of the misfortunes of Todd Gilliland, who had a great night going until the final round of pit stops changed the handling of his car and he was forced to settle for fourth at the finish.
Jones, who will be in the booth as a driver analyst for the FS1 broadcast of the General Tire 150, believes racing in the ARCA series gives drivers like himself plenty of relevant experience to succeed in the upper levels of NASCAR. He currently drives the No. 19 Menards Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“I give the ARCA Menards Series a lot of credit for my success over the years and helping me get to the NASCAR Xfinity Series today,” Jones said. “I’ve gained so much confidence in that series, winning with multiple teams and at different tracks; it really helped build me up as I prepared to take the next step in my racing career. I’ve always felt that getting track time in the ARCA Series helps a lot when preparing for my Xfinity Series races.”
A couple of drivers that are prospects to join Jones as ARCA graduates who have gone on to success in the upper levels of NASCAR include Travis Braden and Christian Eckes.
Braden won in his ARCA Menards Series debut at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2015 and was included in ESPN’s list of drivers to watch for 2019. He is from Wheeling, W.Va., and a graduate of West Virginia University with dual degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering. His team is located in Brownsburg, Ind., just outside of Indianapolis, so the Charlotte race isn’t necessarily a home game for him but he does see the value of a strong performance in the sport’s epicenter.
“Charlotte is still the capital of stock car racing and probably always will be,” Braden said. “To win at this venue is arguably as sought-after as an event like Daytona or Homestead, but for a little different reason. Obviously the opportunity to perform, and hopefully win, in front of the eyes of the majority of the sport’s leadership is of similar value to each of us. For myself and RFMS Racing, and any other non-southeastern-based team, I think you have an extra piece of motivation here. To go down there and beat those guys means a ton. It’s impressive in the eyes of any. You definitely won’t hear the typical “well he’s in the highest-budget ride and got all of the backing, he should have won” response if we were able to pull it off.”
Eckes is making his first run at the series title in 2019. Racing a part-time schedule in 2018, he won three times and has already collected one win so far in 2019 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. Eckes, a native of Middletown, N.Y., races for Venturini Motorsports, which is located near the race track in Concord, North Carolina. He will be making his first appearance at Charlotte and knows a good run will impress his other boss, Kyle Busch, who he drives for in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
“It’s going to be really cool to race at Charlotte for the first time,” Eckes said. “It’s going to be my first mile and a half race as well, so I’m really looking forward to it. We tested a few weeks ago and our No. 15 JBL Camry showed a lot of speed. My Venturini team is based about five minutes from the track so it’s important for us to go have a good run. We will be ready.”