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ARCA Menards rewind: What we learned at Phoenix

Everyone knew the 2021 ARCA Menards Series West season finale at Phoenix Raceway was going to produce drama with seven drivers entering within range of the series championship.

Nobody could have predicted the particular brand of drama that put an exclamation point on the Arizona Lottery 100.

After Ty Gibbs won Saturday’s race, his 12th victory on the ARCA Menards platform in 2021, Jesse Love left Phoenix as the West Series champion for the second consecutive year. Love, the 16-year-old from Menlo Park, California, earned Bill McAnally Racing its sixth West Series title in the last seven years and a record 11th overall.

But only because of a ming-boggling pass for 14th place on the final lap of the race on the one-mile paved tri-oval in Avondale, Arizona.

Arizona Lottery 100: Race Recap | Race Highlights

Jesse Love

Trevor Huddleston’s mistake and Jesse Love’s steal

Anybody watching the Arizona Lottery 100 broadcast on NBC Sports Gold’s TrackPass on Saturday saw Sunrise Ford Racing’s Jake Drew cross the finish line 11th. It appeared the 21-year-old had won the championship by one point over Love, who was running 15th.

The problem: Love was no longer running 15th.

Riding 14th and 15th, respectively, in the closing laps, Trevor Huddleston (Drew’s teammate) and Love were cruising just ahead of Gibbs, the race leader, as Gibbs took the checkered flag. Huddleston saw that checkered flag, but it wasn’t for him.

Thinking the race was over, Huddleston lifted going into Turn 1 of his white-flag lap. Love did not. As a result, Love made the pass for 14th, a position that placed him in a points tie with Drew. Love won the tiebreaker — and the championship — by virtue of his two West Series victories this season to zero for Drew.

Huddleston after the race owned up to his mistake. Love said he wasn’t sure what happened; all he cared about was gaining a position on the final lap.

“I was just gunning until everybody slowed down,” Love explained. “I’ve done that before, probably 10 years ago, I slowed down on the white-flag lap. Haven’t made that mistake since. I didn’t even know the checkered came out. It’s hard to see it because of how high up the flagstand is.”

Asked whether he received any information from his spotter as he took the white flag, Love said his directions were simple: “Get him.”

That’s exactly what he did.

Jesse Love

Drew after the race was surprisingly upbeat despite feeling “defeated” by such a heartbreaking loss in the championship race. The rookie had no wins in 2021 but entered the season finale just three points back of the lead in the standings.

His strong run at Phoenix wasn’t good enough for a title, but it did leave Drew feeling satisfied about his and his team’s efforts.

“To come up that short to the champion from last year, that’s quite a privilege, I feel,” Drew said. “I’m super thankful to (car owner) Bob Bruncati and the whole Bruncati family. They gave me such an awesome opportunity to come do this, and I’m so grateful for them.

“This is what I got to do today; I got to battle for an ARCA West championship, and that’s pretty incredible to me. So either way, I’m super stoked. We’re going to come back next year, and I think we’re going to dominate.”

RELATED: Final ARCA Menards Series West points

Ty Gibbs’ exclamation point on 2021

Ty Gibbs
Ty Gibbs, driver of the No. 18 Monster Energy-Terrible Herbst-ORCA Toyota, celebrates winning the Arizona Lottery 100 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6, 2021. (Caitlin O’Hara/ARCA Racing)

Gibbs’ 2021 season on the ARCA Menards platform was as dominant as any in the history of the series. That was the case before Saturday, when he led all 100 laps of the Arizona Lottery 100.

Taylor Gray was the only driver who even challenged Gibbs at Phoenix, doing so on a series of late restarts. Nobody else had anything for the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

In total, the 19-year-old Gibbs won 12 races on the ARCA Menards platform in 2021. That includes 10 ARCA Menards Series wins, one East Series win and Saturday’s West Series win. Perhaps more impressive — and more representative of his dominance — are his laps led totals for the year.

Gibbs led 1,689 laps in 20 ARCA Menards Series races, easily the most in a single season. Tim Steele previously held the record with 1,514 laps led in 1996, and he did that in 25 races to Gibbs’ 20. Gibbs also won the series’ season-long Valvoline Lap Leader award in 2020, when he led 969 laps in 16 races.

Amazingly, Gibbs ended 2021 as the season-long Valvoline Lap Leader in both the East Series and the West Series, too, despite running in only four and two of those series’ events, respectively.

The Huntersville, North Carolina, native led 621 laps in four of eight East Series races. Three of those were combination events with the ARCA Menards Series. He led 621 of the 625 laps he ran in the East Series in 2021.

Gibbs also led 224 West Series laps in two of nine races, both at Phoenix, with the first coming in a combination event with the ARCA Menards Series. He led 224 of the 250 laps he ran in the West Series in 2021.

Gibbs led flag-to-flag in four ARCA Menards events this year, including three in the ARCA Menards Series (Kansas, Charlotte and Milwaukee) and one in the West Series (Saturday at Phoenix). He led all but one lap in two more ARCA Menards Series races, at Iowa Speedway in July and at Michigan International Speedway in August. He also led all but three laps in his Bristol victory in September. He led all but two in the ARCA Menards Series finale at Kansas.

So Gibbs’ dominance in the Arizona Lottery 100 was a fitting way to end his 2021 ARCA Menards season, one of the greatest ever recorded.

Cole Moore’s rookie honors

Bounty150 Arca Rookie Challenge Logo Cmyk

The West Series championship battle was not the only tight race to be decided Saturday at Phoenix. Three drivers — Cole Moore, Joey Iest and Drew — entered the finale tied in the series’ Bounty Rookie Challenge (rookie of the year) standings.

Of course, all were also involved in the overall title chase that Love ultimately took. Just like he did in that battle, Drew fell short of the rookie title based on the Arizona Lottery 100 results.

Because all three rookies were tied entering the finale, the driver who finished highest at Phoenix would win the challenge. Moore finished 10th, one position ahead of Drew, to take the title. Iest finished 17th.

Cole Moore
Cole Moore climbs into his No. 99 NAPA Power Premium Plus Toyota for qualifying ahead of the Arizona Lottery 100 for the ARCA Menards Series West at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, on Nov. 6, 2021. (Caitlin O’Hara/ARCA Racing)

Moore, the 24-year-old from Granite Bay, California, is not new to the West Series even though he was classified as a rookie in 2021 driving for Bill McAnally Racing. He ran eight West Series races over a three-year span from 2015-17 (three top 10s) before a three-year hiatus.

Moore was busy in the meantime, competing in the SRL Spears Southwest Tour and winning the championship in 2019 despite not winning a race thanks to a model of consistency. He also won at the local level at All American Speedway in 2020, winning seven races and placing a narrow second to Dylan Garner in the track’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series point standings.

He returned to the West Series this year to pilot one of BMR’s potent Toyotas for his first full-time season.

Moore ended the season with four top fives and seven top 10s in nine races. He led 114 laps over three races (Colorado National Speedway, Portland International Raceway and California’s All American Speedway). He scored season-high fourth place finishes at Sonoma Raceway and at Colorado.

Moore is the second consecutive Bounty Rookie Challenge winner for BMR in the ARCA Menards Series West; Love took the title last season.

Notes

  • Jesse Love became the first driver since Todd Gilliland (2016-17) to win back-to-back titles in the West Series. Love was the 40th driver to earn at least one series championship and is now the 15th driver to earn more than one.
  • P.J. Pedroncelli recovered to finish 18th at Phoenix after a Lap 2 spin left him a lap down and seventh out of the seven drivers who were mathematically alive for the championship. He worked himself back into contention, at one point closing the points-as-they-run gap to just one. He ended up fourth in the standings, five points out of the lead.
  • A total of 65 drivers made at least one West Series start in 2021, with six drivers scoring at least one victory, 23 drivers scoring at least one top-five finish and 39 drivers scoring at least one top-10 finish. Fourteen drivers led laps.
  • Cole Moore completed more laps than any other West Series competitor in 2021, 1,118 of the possible 1,120. Sunrise Ford Racing teammates Jake Drew and Trevor Huddleston both completed 1,114 laps.
  • The West Series saw an average of three leaders per race in 2021, a 50 percent increase from 2020. The 4.33 lead changes per race in 2021 were a 63 percent increase from last season, as well.
  • The West Series saw an average of 6.8 caution flags per race in 2021 for an average of 36.78 laps under caution per race.