All eyes may be on the championship chases as the ARCA Menards Series heads into a pivotal weekend doubleheader at Toledo Speedway.
But a pair of up-and-coming drivers are perfectly suited to steal the spotlight at the Ohio half-mile.
At just 15, Taylor Gray has already adapted quickly to the transition from Late Models to the heavier ARCA cars. And 23-year-old Derek Griffith, who wasn’t slated to even race this weekend, is looking to make the most of this last-minute opportunity.
"It’s a nice to be able to add a couple of short track races to the schedule that’s for sure," said Griffith in a video conference call with media this week. "The biggest thing I am doing to get ready is watching all the old video I can from Toledo. Watching where the line is and how the races play out."
Toledo will host the Menards.com 200 presented by SPxE on Friday (8 p.m. ET), and then the Menards 200 presented by Crosley Brands on Saturday (6 p.m.). Both races are live on MAVTV and will stream live on TrackPass on NBC Gold.
The doubleheader will be races No. 9 and 10 of the ARCA Menards Series. They’ll also serve as the fourth and fifth rounds of the Sioux Chief Showdown.
While neither Gray nor Griffith are running a full schedule and are in the championship picture, they’ve proven they can be a factor in whatever races they run.
Griffith, a native of Hudson, New Hampshire, won the Super Late Model portion of the 54th World Series of Stock Car Asphalt Racing at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in February. Earlier in the week, he won his first General Tire Pole Award and led the most laps en route to a runner-up finish in the ARCA Menards Series East opener at New Smyrna. It was his first series race and his debut with Chad Bryant Racing.
He said his conversations with Ty Majeski and Chase Briscoe, both whom have won races with Bryant, has helped him get acclimated faster.
"I had never been in an ARCA car at all before New Smyrna and I spent a lot of time talking to Ty and he got me up to speed really quickly," said Griffith. "Then the next day he went out and raced me all night long for a super late model win. He’s been super helpful getting me up to speed in the ARCA car.
"The way the pit stops will play out with the break instead of live pit stops will change things a little for sure. The breaks take the tire strategy out of it, so it is going to come down to which team is prepared the best and which driver gets the job done on the racetrack."
RACING-REFERENCE: Derek Griffith Career Stats
Griffith’s original 2020 plans were interrupted by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Since the return to racing, he’s made four starts in the No. 22 Original Gourmet Lollipops Ford, and scored three top 10s. Coming off an eighth-place run at Kansas,the team announced plans to race the doubleheader weekend at Toledo.
Gray has already raced at the track this season. He finished eighth in his ARCA Menards Series East debut in June, running in the top five before getting caught on the outside of a three-wide maneuver. The spin and subsequent transmission issues left him seven laps down to race winner Ty Gibbs, but still provided plenty of valuable experience.
"Really just learning how much tire to save and tire to give was my big issue," Gray said. "In late model stocks you have one set of tires for the whole day. I got behind the eight ball early saving tires. Now, I have a little bit of a handle on how hard to go and the weight of the race cars, so I think we should be able to get a little better finish."
Gray also finished fourth (Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Raceway) and fifth (Iowa Speedway) in his first two ARCA Menards starts. Not old enough to run the tracks 1.5-miles or longer, he’s sharing the No. 17 Ford Performance Ford ride with his brother, Tanner.
RACING-REFERENCE: Taylor Gray Career Stats
"Me and Blake (Bainbridge, crew chief) have connected pretty well," Taylor Gray said. "Our personalities are pretty close. We communicate really well in how we go about making our changes. We have a good baseline to start with.
"I learned a lot (in June). I learned the characteristics of the place. A lot of people go into it not knowing how hard the place is. It is definitely a challenging place. We’re going into it trying to learn some more."
Past Toledo race winners in the field include Ty Gibbs (ARCA Menards Series East, June 2020) and Chandler Smith (ARCA Menards Series, May 2019). Smith was also fourth at the track in 2018. Michael Self has a top five (fourth, 2019) in his only start at Toledo, while Bret Holmes has a fifth in 2018 and a third in the East race earlier this year. Championship contenders Hailie Deegan and Drew Dollar will be making their initial starts at the Ohio oval.
Giovanni Bromante, who finished eighth at Toledo in the ARCA Menards Series East, will make his ARA Menards Series debut in the Visconti Motorsports No. 74 Bromante Landscape/Event Tone Wireless Chevrolet. Also making his first start will be Owen Smith, a 20-year-old who has competed in the Late Model Stock Car ranks in Virginia. Smith will be in the No. 11 Double H Ranch for Andy Hillenburg’s Fast Track Racing
Per the State of Ohio’s COVID-19 safety protocols, fans will not be able to attend the weekend’s races. Both events will be televised live by MAVTV and simulcast locally on BCSN. In addition, both ends of the weekend doubleheader will be streamed on NBC Sports Gold TrackPass.
The Friday night/Saturday night doubleheader at Toledo Speedway will mark the first time since 1956 that the series has run a pair of races on the same weekend in Toledo. Back then, Iggy Katona and Russ Hepler each earned a victory in a same-day doubleheader at the now defunct Toledo Raceway Park, an automobile race track that sat inside a horse race track. Toledo Raceway Park was situated just two miles from where Toledo Speedway sits today.
It will mark the series’ first weekend doubleheader since 2003 when Casey Mears swept a weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway after weather forced the series’ June race at the track to be moved to back-to-back days during the track’s July race weekend.
Friday and Saturday’s races will kick off a full month of ARCA Menards Series races on MAVTV. The ARCA Menards Series will also be part of a NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 9, and then head to Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 14 to kick off a weekend full of racing alongside the NASCAR national series. The ARCA Menards Series will then close out its race schedule for the month on Aug. 29 at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois.