Love conquers all: How astute development propelled Jesse Love to the ARCA Menards Series championship

Jesse Love already knows what it’s like to win a championship.

A few years ago, at just 15, the driver from Menlo Park, California made history when he became the youngest driver to win a title on the ARCA Menards Series platform. He accomplished this with a three-win campaign with the ARCA Menards Series West in 2020, which he followed with another West Series championship the following year.

Earning a title in the premier ARCA division carries a different wave of emotions for Love. He never doubted his capabilities to obtain that accomplishment, but he admitted winning at a variety of tracks both big and small highlighted the growth he’s undergone as a driver.

“The coolest part about winning the national championship is that you go to so many Cup tracks,” said Love, now 18. “Charlotte, Kansas, Pocono, Daytona, Talladega and so on. You want to race at those places one day in the Cup Series, and with all these destinations you go to en route to [an ARCA] championship, there’s no substitute for that at a young age.”

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of Love’s championship season

Racing was embedded into Love’s life before he was even born, as his father Jesshill ‘Duke’ Love competed in quarter midgets alongside Jeff Gordon during his youth.

Although Duke did not pursue auto racing as a full-time career, it did not take long before his son began to possess the same passion. When Love was barely 5, he sat inside a live quarter-midget for the first time and knew immediately he wanted to drive on as soon as possible.

Love formally broke into national midget racing in 2015, when he was encouraged to enjoy his time on the track and not feel any pressure. By the end of the decade, he was winning midget races on a semi-regular basis, which began attracting the attention of several prominent figures in the NASCAR garage area.

Toyota Racing Development capitalized on Love’s potential by signing him to a deal that would see the young prospect branch into pavement racing. This included two full-time seasons in the ARCA Menards Series West with Bill McAnally Racing, which only further demonstrated Love’s efficiency behind the wheel.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 06: Jesse Love, driver of the #16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, poses for photos after winning the 2021 ARCA Menards Series Championship in the ARCA Arizona Lottery 100 at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Jesse Love won two championships in the ARCA Menards Series West prior to joining the main ARCA division full-time in 2023. (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

With Love continuing to make progress, the next step of his development involved moving from his home in California to the East Coast. The culture shock of life on the other side of the country was initially jarring, but Love stayed focused knowing he would have to become the best version of himself in such a competitive environment.

“The East was such a different animal than out West,” Love said. “I thought the East Coast was a cold and dark place all the time with a lot of rain, but it’s a different world out here. At the same time, I didn’t have any pressure on what people out East thought about me until I came out here and ran a few races.

“That’s when the pressure started.”

The hardest part for Love when it came to settling into his new home was being away from his family for a prolonged period. Despite this, Love found plenty of surrogate father figures in Billy Venturini, Shannon Rusch, Bond Suss and others, all of whom helped Love mature both on and off the track.

Through their guidance, Love made gradual-but-steady inroads toward becoming a consistent pavement racer away from the West Coast. He won his first race in the main ARCA division with Venturini Motorsports at Salem Speedway in 2021 and tacked on another victory at the Illinois State Fairgrounds the following season.

The solid start led to Love’s biggest challenge in 2023, a full-time ARCA Menards Series campaign driving Venturini’s flagship No. 20 Toyota.

Jesse Love, driver of the JBL Toyota during the Atlas 200 for the ARCA Menards Series at Salem Speedway in Salem, Indiana on September 30, 2023. (Gunnar Word/ARCA Racing)
Jesse Love formally wrapped up the 2023 ARCA Menards Series title by starting the Atlas 200 at Salem Speedway, a race he won leading every lap. (Photo: Gunnar Word/ARCA Racing)

Love more than lived up to the enormous expectations placed upon him. He compiled one of the most efficient seasons in recent ARCA Menards Series history by winning half the races on the 2023 calendar, which included separate win streaks of three and four.

An early season crash at Phoenix Raceway helped Love adopt the accurate mindset for his championship campaign. He knew thinking ahead would not help him erase the deficit he faced at the time, so he chose to trust his faith and driving ability while approaching everything on a week-to-week basis.

“I hadn’t done anything like this before,” Love said. “Out West, I was the man, but out here I had a lot to learn. I let go of my expectations and stopped thinking about winning all these races. That’s when the season really kicked off. I got a lot closer to God, and now I race a lot looser in the car.

“When I got to five wins, I wasn’t thinking about 10. I’m just thinking about going to the next race and doing the best job that I can.”

Even with his concentration centered on the ARCA Menards Series, Love still makes time to return to his quarter midget roots at available opportunities.

Love wants to model his driving style after drivers like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Tony Stewart, A.J. Foyt and others by balancing out both pavement and dirt racing. He initially wanted to move on from dirt completely, but Love admitted valuable track time in a dirt midget the past couple of years has helped him feel more comfortable on paved ovals.

“I stopped racing dirt because I thought I sucked at it,” Love said. “I wasn’t really doing enough to be a contender every night, but I started racing with Chad Boat and got a lot better this year. The dirt stuff helps you stay adaptive throughout a race. I do so much sketchy stuff on dirt already, so the pavement stuff doesn’t feel sketchy at all.”

Jesse Loved, driver of the #20 JBL Toyota, looks on before the Sprecher 150 for the ARCA Menards Series at The Milwaukee Mile on August 27, 2023 in West Allis, Wisconsin. (Patrick McDermott/ARCA Racing)
Jesse Love has his sights set on the future following a dominant ARCA Menards Series run. (Photo: Patrick McDermott/ARCA Racing)

Versatility is a quality Love knows will be pertinent as he progresses through the NASCAR developmental ladder.

With Love expected to move on from the ARCA Menards Series in 2024, he leaves a legacy that saw him maximize the potential Toyota Racing Development saw in him to join a stellar list of champions like Ty Gibbs, Chase Briscoe and Chris Buescher, all of whom have found success at NASCAR’s top levels.

Love described his championship as a bittersweet moment knowing he’s moving away from the team that shaped him into who he is today, but he is ready to showcase what Venturini and so many others have taught him as he prepares to embark on the next phase of his career.

“I learned so much in ARCA,” Love said. “I’ve learned how to lose, how to win, how to become a good restarter and just everything else. My driving style and race craft comes from racing ARCA the past few years. [The platform] sets a lot of drivers up for success, and there isn’t one thing that’s going to help me down the road. It’s the whole package.”

Championships have come naturally to Love ever since he strapped into his first stock car, which is a trend he plans to continue through the 2020s and beyond.