In sports, they say the only task more difficult than winning a title is staying atop the proverbial mountain and winning a second.
Jesse Love experienced this in 2021 on his way to a second consecutive ARCA Menards Series West championship.
Love, the Bill McAnally Racing driver from Menlo Park, California, who with last year’s West Series title became the youngest NASCAR champion ever at age 15, is the series’ second back-to-back champion (Todd Gilliland in 2016-17) since 2004-05, when Mike Duncan repeated.
“This year was different,” Love, 16, said after accepting his ARCA Menards Series West championship ring at NASCAR’s Champions Week in Nashville, Tennessee. “More highs, but also more lows.”
That description of Love’s season was epitomized in the Nov. 6 finale at Phoenix Raceway.
The Arizona Lottery 100 was sure to produce drama as seven drivers entered with chances to leave as the West Series champion, the top five of whom were separated by just six points in the standings. Sure enough, in the closing laps, just two championship points separated the top three drivers in the running order.
And when the checkered flag waved, it appeared as though Love’s season had ended with the lowest of lows, a championship loss by one position on track. Instead, a sneaky pass on the final lap led to the highest of highs.
With Jake Drew seemingly cruising to the title running 11th, four spots ahead of Love, Drew’s Sunrise Ford Racing teammate Trevor Huddleston made a crucial error. Running 14th, Huddleston lifted at the start of his white-flag lap, thinking the race had ended. Love easily passed Huddleston in Turn 1 of their final lap, and his 14th-place finish placed him and Drew in a tie atop the standings.
Love earned the championship by virtue of a tiebreaker — his two West Series wins in 2021 compared to zero for Drew.
The chaotic finish to Love’s season was the perfect microcosm of his year.
Love won two West Series races in 2021, both at California’s Irwindale Speedway. But he also finished 12th or worse in four of nine races. In 2020, he had just one such finish in 11 events.
In fact, all of Love’s totals dropped from 2020 to 2021. He won three races last year and two this year. He recorded nine top-five finishes last year and just four this year. He collected 10 top-10 finishes last year and five this year. He earned four General Tire Pole Awards last year and none this year. He led 369 laps last year and 183 this year. His average finish last year was 3.9, and his average finish this year was 7.9.
Which is to say: Championships arrive in different ways. Love’s 2020 title was the product of consistency. His 2021 title was the product of resiliency.
“Everyone did a good job of not giving up,” Love said of the team that kept improving his No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota all year. “The only way you can guarantee failure is if you give up. There were times in the season we were sixth in points; we’ve never been that low.
“But we never gave up.”
Despite the “lows” Love referenced, he still finished the season as a worthy champion. His pair of wins marked the best total among West Series regulars, as did his 183 laps led on the season. Among those full-timers, only Joey Iest (six) had more top-five finishes than Love’s four.
Love’s 2021 title marked BMR’s 11th West Series title overall, extending the organization’s record. On a personal level, Love has now won two championships in two seasons in the West Series.
That’s what matters. Especially when the road to a second title was always supposed to be more bumpy than the path to the first.