LONG POND, Pa. – The calendar says we are just one month into summer, but the racing schedule says the ARCA Menards Series season will reach its three-quarter mark with the completion of the FORTS USA 150 at Pocono Raceway.
The 60-lap race will be the series’ 69th visit to the 2.5-mile Pocono triangle since 1983 and the 70th overall counting a singular visit to the facility’s defunct three-quarter mile oval that encircled what is now the track’s garage area back in 1969.
Despite the season winding towards its conclusion, the battle for the series championship has stayed close over the course of the season. Michael Self has a 90-point lead over Bret Holmes in the standings. Self has three wins on the season, coming at Five Flags Speedway, Salem Speedway, and Michigan International Speedway, but he’s also faced some bad racing luck and mechanical issues along the way that have prevented him from building a significant lead on the field.
Self has repeatedly said his priority is winning races, not counting points. He has maintained that stance as the season concludes a ten-races-in-eleven-weeks stretch at Pocono.
“I really don’t want to talk about points at all,” Self said after the recent series race at Madison Int’l Speedway in Wisconsin. “Our priority all along has been winning races. If we win all of the races then the points situation will take care of itself.”
Holmes, a 22-year-old building sciences major at Clemson University, is still searching for his first career ARCA Menards Series win as a driver. Although that first win has been elusive as a driver, his team has collected an ARCA Menards Series victory. It happened, of all places, at Pocono with former series champion Grant Enfinger at the wheel in 2016.
Sitting second in the standings with twelve top-ten finishes in 14 races so far in 2019, Holmes has had a career season to this point. Holmes and his team collected an eighth-place finish last Friday night at Iowa Speedway, doing so in their backup car after a crash in practice damaged their primary car. A car that was the fastest on the track at the time of the crash. Holmes didn’t let the bad luck discourage him or his Shane Huffman-led team.
“The backup car wasn’t nearly as strong as the primary car,” Holmes said of last week’s Iowa run. “The guys worked super hard on it in the heat to get it ready for the race. We did what we could with the time that we had. I think if we could have raced our primary car, we definitely would have been up there contending for the win. We aren’t giving up, this just makes us a stronger team.”
Self and Holmes will both need to be at the peak of their game if they want to walk away with the series championship. A third contender has emerged, or re-emerged, in the battle as the season readies for the final run to its conclusion.
After back-to-back third-place finishes to start the season, Christian Eckes led the series standings heading into the third round of the season at Salem. But Eckes fell ill the night before the race and was unable to compete. The next time out at Talladega, Eckes was involved in a crash not of his doing and finished last in the 26-car field. In two races, he gave up 325 points to Self. Eckes sits just 105 points behind Self with six races remaining.
In the ten races since Talladega, Eckes has outscored Self 2,095 to 2,020. He has six races, including the FORTS USA 150, to close the 105-point gap in the battle for the series title. While Self is not paying attention to the points battle just yet, Eckes and his team have no other option.
“It’s hard not to pay attention to it,” Eckes said. “We are in the hunt. But we just need good finishes. Every time we get a good break, then we shoot ourselves in the foot. At Nashville we were 80 points back and we continuously shot ourselves in the foot afterwards. It’s unfortunate that it keeps happening. Everyone on the team is working hard to get it turned around. We need to string together six good finishes. We are going for wins right now. We have to. We aren’t that close where we can ride it out. We need good finishes. We can’t finish seventh anymore. We have a team that is capable of winning every week. But we’ve made some mistakes that have put us behind.”