After a thrilling 2018 season that saw him score his first-ever ARCA Menards Series victory in an old-fashioned fender-banging duel at Berlin Raceway, Joe Graf, Jr. came into 2019 with high hopes for more of the same.
Paired again with Chad Bryant Racing, Graf (No. 77 EAT SLEEP RACE Ford) was one of the season’s pre-season championship favorites. Long-time crew chief and now team owner Bryant overseeing things, veteran crew chief Todd Myers calling the shots from the pit box, and former NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion Mike Bliss serving as driver coach, all the pieces were in place for a successful season.
Graf finished fifth in the final series championship standings, a finish that many would consider to be the hallmark of a successful season.
And in many ways for Graf, it was. But in many ways it was also a struggle.
It started at Daytona, when a plastic bag floated out of the grandstand area and landed on the grille opening, forcing him to the pits and costing him several laps as his crew dealt with an overheating engine. Graf left Daytona 21st and in a deep points hole.
Graf finished eleventh at Five Flags Speedway and then ninth at Salem, and it seemed like the train was back rolling in the right direction. A tenth at Talladega showed what he could have done at Daytona if not for that errant plastic bag, and he followed with a sixth-place finish at Nashville.
An early-race crash at Toledo left him 17th at the finish, his worst finish of the year outside of the Daytona race. He finished 12th at Charlotte, a race won by his teammate Ty Majeski. Eighth at Pocono, another Majeski win, was followed by a season-best fourth at Michigan.
The final eleven races of the season were steady, if not unspectacular, for Graf. He never finished lower than eleventh but he also never finished better than sixth, which came at Salem in the season’s 18th race. He had three ninth-place finishes at Madison, Iowa, and Kansas, three tenth-place finishes at Pocono, Springfield, and Lucas Oil Raceway, and three eleventh-place finishes at WWT Raceway, Chicagoland, and DuQuoin. He also finished seventh at Elko, the track he started his racing career at in Bandolero cars when he was a youngster.
Thirteen top-ten finishes in twenty starts is not a bad percentage by any means. But just one of those, a fourth-place finish at Michigan, was among the top five. Not a bad season by any means, but it wasn’t what he and the team were looking for coming off a strong 2018.
On the upside, Graf did make three starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for Richard Childress Racing and finished a season-best 14th in his final start of the season at Richmond in September. Graf also spent a part of the season working within the team’s marketing and communications department as an intern while he completes his degree at New York University.
ARCA’s 67th season will come to a close when Christian Eckes will officially be crowned the 36th ARCA Menards Series champion on Saturday, December 14 at the Championship Banquet held at the Indiana State Convention Center, held annually in conjunction with the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show. Tickets to the black tie gala, which are also available to the general public, will go on sale on Monday, October 28.