Conventional wisdom suggested the General Tire 150 at Phoenix Raceway would apply some heat to the early ARCA Menards Series championship race.
Indeed, through two races in 2021, the winner of the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, Corey Heim, has just a three-point lead in the standings over second-place Ty Gibbs after the latter won Friday’s 150-lap race in Avondale, Arizona.
And with the style of racing applied at Phoenix more common on the 20-race schedule than the style seen at Daytona, it’s fair to wonder whether the results of the weekend will serve as a microcosm of the title race to come.
All the while, the ARCA Menards Series West season began at Phoenix in a combination race with the ARCA Menards Series. The first of nine West Series races was unique in its combo status, but some familiar names among West regulars proved they’ll be factors for the championship come November.
Below are the top takeaways from the General Tire 150 at Phoenix.
Clarity up front
Gibbs won Friday’s race at Phoenix in convincing fashion, leading 124 of the 150 laps and beating Heim to the finish line on a last-lap restart. Heim after the race summed it up frankly.
“He was just the clear cut fastest car all day, and we were just the clear-cut second fastest car all day,” he said.
Heim was credited with only one lap led at Phoenix, but he was the only driver who generally was able to keep pace with Gibbs’ No. 18 Pristine Auction Toyota. The bad news for Heim is he didn’t have the speed to keep up with his primary challenger at this early point in the championship race.
The good news for Heim is he was close enough to be in position to steal the checkered flag on the race’s final restart.
“I honestly wish I could re-do that last lap,” said Heim, who is running the full ARCA Menards Series season for Venturini Motorsports in the No. 20 JBL Toyota. “I felt like I made a mistake just filing in behind him in (Turn) 2. I was trying to cross him over, but I forgot how good he was out of the corners — that’s where he beat me all day was center off.
“Finishes like this are potentially what could win us a championship. We just have to have strong runs whether we’re the best car or not.”
Heim’s post-race comments suggest he remains focused on the bigger picture. A long season is ahead, but he and Gibbs through two races have separated themselves from the field in terms of drivers who plan to compete for the title.
The next race on the ARCA Menards Series schedule is the April 24 running of the General Tire 200 at Talladega Superspeedway, where the timely VMS teamwork that contributed to Heim’s win at Daytona could again benefit the current points leader.
But that race also marks the last for the series on a 2.5-mile superspeedway this season. If Heim is to hold off Gibbs in the standings, he’ll need to do it on a variety of layouts and surfaces, including road courses, dirt tracks and ovals of varying lengths.
Heim was admittedly frustrated to finish second at Phoenix and lose a little ground in the early title race. But he had no problem admitting Gibbs had the better car.
“I tried to give him a run for his money,” Heim said of Gibbs. “But he deserved that win.”
After all, this was only Round 2 of 20.
Check out these ?? images from @phoenixraceway
– ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) March 15, 2021
How the West might be won
The first race of the 2021 ARCA Menards Series West season played out in a way that was similar to last year’s series finale at the same track. Jesse Love didn’t win at Phoenix last November in part because of additional competition from entries who were not West regulars, but he did clinch the series title.
Love didn’t win Friday, either, but the defending West champ did prove he’ll be a strong repeat contender when the series returns to Phoenix for the 2021 finale this November.
Not including his Bill McAnally Racing teammate Derek Kraus, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular and 2019 West Series champ who finished fifth at Phoenix running a one-off for the team, Love was the highest finishing West Series regular in sixth.
It was the best run among drivers who have announced intentions to race full-time in the ARCA Menards Series West this season, with Sunrise Ford Racing’s Trevor Huddleston the next best in 10th.
West Series veteran Todd Souza managed to finish eighth at Phoenix as the last car on the lead lap, an impressive feat considering he was battling his race car’s handling all night. (Hence his nomination for the Reese’s Sweet Move of the Race thanks to one of his saves.)
Love’s full-time BMR teammate Cole Moore also showed glimpses of speed before finishing 12th.
Love, though, established himself as the driver to beat in the West Series again this season. Huddleston and the others now have eight more races — none of which will be combo events with the ARCA Menards Series — to establish themselves as threats to a repeat.
Just a Thad off
Some racers would be thrilled to leave the track with a career-best third place finish.
Thad Moffitt is not one of them.
The driver of the No. 46 CleanPacs Ford for David Gilliland Racing left Phoenix frustrated with himself over what he felt was a driver failure, as he lost positions on the second to last restart before rebounding on the last-lap restart to salvage his third-pace finish.
Moffitt is hoping to challenge the likes of Gibbs and Heim for the 2021 ARCA Menards Series title. But he needs to be able to compete in all 20 races.
“We’d love to run for a championship,” said Moffitt, the grandson of NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty. “We’re still short about five or six races on funding. We kind of have it front-loaded, so we’re going to run the first 14 right now and hopefully get the back (end) sold.
“We just need to keep powering up finishes like this and go out and win us some races.”
– Thad Moffitt (@ThadMoffitt) March 14, 2021
Moffitt set himself back in the opener at Daytona when he got involved in an accident before finishing 21st. So his third-place run at Phoenix was sweet in comparison. But it was bitter sweet in the context of his bigger-picture goals.
“This is our no excuses year,” Moffitt stated frankly. “So I think it’s time for us to start being consistently in the top five and win races. And I (didn’t do) a good job of that at Daytona, and we kind or rebounded with a third.
“Definitely need to start winning some races.”
Moffitt’s third at Phoenix puts him fifth in the ARCA Menards Series points standings through two races, 26 points behind the leader Heim.
Gibbs’ burnout skills
When Gibbs won at the Daytona Road Course in his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start last month, his celebratory burnout was a failure. He said he was so excited that he destroyed his clutch.
In the immediate aftermath of that burnout attempt at Daytona, he told FOX Sports’ Jamie Little that burnouts are “one thing (he) cannot do.”
Based on his celebratory burnout at Phoenix, that was a lie.
– ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) March 13, 2021
Gibbs’ epic burnout at Phoenix was voted the Reese’s Sweet Move of the Race for the General Tire 150.
- Gibbs earned his first ARCA Menards Series win of 2021, marking hiss ninth career victory in the series. It positions him to become the first driver to break into double-digit wins in the series since Parker Kligerman earned his 10th series win at New Jersey Motorsports Park in 2016.
- Gibbs is now tied for 36th on the all-time series win list with Darel Dieringer, Tom Bowsher, Grant Adcox, Tracy Leslie, Bobby Gerhart, Ty Dillon, Michael Self and Chandler Smith.
- Kyle Sieg finished a career-best fourth in his fifth ARCA Menards Series start after finishing fifth in the season-opener at Daytona. He sits fourth in points.
- In just his sixth ARCA Menards Series start, Nick Sanchez was running third at Phoenix late in the race and in great position to earn his first top-five finish. But an incident with a lapped car sent him hard into the wall and ended his race prematurely.
Don’t know what to say………..gutted. I was running P3 and a lap car 3 laps down clipped my right rear and sent me head on in the wall. Can’t thank my team @RevRacin enough. We showed our speed tonight, on to Talladega. pic.twitter.com/aSpDRLYSh9
– Nicholas Sanchez (@Nicksanchez080) March 13, 2021
- Gibbs, Heim and Sieg have all finished in the top five in both races run so far in 2021.
- Gibbs, Heim, Sieg and Drew Dollar have all finished in the top 10 in both races so far in 2021.
- Richard Garvie has made the most starts across the ARCA Menards platform in 2021 with four. He has appeared at Daytona, Florida’s New Smyrna, 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, and Phoenix. He finished a career-best 10th at 5 Flags.
- Heim leads the ARCA Menards Series with an average finish of 1.5 in two starts. Gibbs is second with an average of 2.5, and Kyle Sieg is third with an average of 4.5.
- The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota has led 342 laps across the ARCA Menards platform so far in 2021. Sammy Smith led 218 laps through two East Series races (New Smyrna and 5 Flags before Gibbs led 124 laps at Phoenix.
- Heim, Dollar, Gibbs and Sieg have completed all 232 possible laps of competition in the ARCA Menards Series so far in 2021.