TOLEDO, Ohio – The ARCA Menards Series returns to Salem Speedway for the 106th time in its 67-year history – and for the second time in 2019 – in Saturday night’s Kentuckiana Ford Dealers 200.
Series championship contender Christian Eckes qualified second for the spring race at Salem, but he will be making his first start of the season on the .555-mile ultra high-banked oval. After qualifying on the front row, Eckes came down with a case of food poisoning and spent the night in the emergency room.
After consultation with doctors, family, and his Venturini Motorsports team, it was decided he should sit out and recover. Harrison Burton, who won the season-opener at Daytona, substituted and drove Eckes’ car to an eighth-place finish.
Missing the race was a letdown for the Middletown, New York teenager for a couple of reasons. First, he was the defending winner of the race and starting on the front row, he had a great chance to make another trip to victory lane. Second, he gave up a lot of ground in the championship battle, particularly to teammate and race winner Michael Self.
“It’s going to be weird going back,” Eckes said. “I don’t know that saying we have unfinished business there is the right way to put it, but we’re definitely ready to get back there. We always want to do the best we can no matter where we’re racing but we do have a little extra motivation after what we went through earlier in the season.”
In April, Eckes came into Salem with a 155-point advantage over Self in the series championship standings. Leaving, Eckes faced an 80-point deficit. With three races remaining in the ARCA Menards Series season, Eckes is in a full court press as he tries to chase Self down for the series championship lead. He’s 70 points out, and with his win at DuQuoin two weeks ago, he cut 35 points off Self’s lead.
“The points we’ve left on the table or lost at places like Talladega really keep you up at night,” Eckes said. “Even with what happened when we missed the race earlier in the year, we probably should be in the points lead. We gave up a lot of points at Talladega and Madison and there were a couple of mile-and-a-halfs that we didn’t run really well at and gave a lot of points up there too.”
Although he’s in catch-up mode, Eckes has momentum on his side. In the last four races, he has two wins – at Pocono and DuQuoin – and two second place finishes.
“That’s a big factor for sure,” he said. “I knew all season that this team was capable of running this well and executing but we had a little trouble stringing them together at times. Our average start over the last four races is 1.7 and our average finish is 1.5. We won at both Salem and Lucas Oil Raceway (in Indianapolis) last year, so we think we’re going to be able to keep that going.”
Eckes will have a busy weekend, starting with the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race in Las Vegas on Friday and ending with the ARCA race at Salem on Saturday night. The races are three time zones apart, and the driver’s meeting at Salem set for 12 hours after the conclusion of the Trucks race at Las Vegas, which means it will be a long night of air travel for Eckes and his entourage.
“We have to be in Las Vegas on Thursday and Friday,” he said. “Our flight out of Las Vegas leaves at 11 p.m. We fly into Charlotte and we get in around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Then we fly from Charlotte up to Salem at 7 a.m. It’s about an hour and a half flight, and the garage area at Salem opens at 9 a.m. It’s going to be a long night and a long day on Saturday.”