TOLEDO, Ohio (Feb. 13, 2018) -- Girl power was on full display at Daytona Int'l Speedway and not just in the driver's seat, although it shined there too when Natalie Decker and Leilani Munter each finished inside the top-10 for Venturini Motorsports. It was the first time in ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards history that two female drivers finished in the top-10 at Daytona in the same race, Decker inside the top-5.
Munter's impressive run had an assist from crew member Breanna O'Leary (cover photo), who changed rear tires for Munter on pit road. O'Leary, from Amarillo, Texas, is in her second year on pit road as a tire changer during live pit stops. A graduate of Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi in General Studies and Social Work, she is now just nine hours away from her Masters degree in Athletic Administration and Coaching.
"I played softball four years in college and I learned how to handle pressure," said O'Leary. "I've learned how to channel my nerves on pit road…turn the pressure into excitement."
It's also worth noting that Venturini Motorsports utilized an all-female pit crew to win the 1987 ARCA Racing Series national championship, including servicing the car during live pit stops, back when they didn't wear helmets and protective fireproof gear.
O'Leary also helped turn Munter's performance into a career-best 8th-place finish for the Rochester, Minnesota driver. Munter's previous career-best runs were a pair of 12th-place finishes at Chicagoland and Kansas Speedways.
Munter, driver of the No. 20 Venturini Motorsports VeganStrong.com Toyota, also had an inspirational assist for the race Saturday, a visit from special guest Ricky Lim. Lim is one of the engineers for Elon Musk's SpaceX company. From the same pad where NASA launched rockets that carried astronauts to the moon, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday, Feb. 6 from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The rocket launch was clearly visible to all from Daytona.
Natalie Decker had an "all-star" week too, winning the General Tire Pole and finishing a career-best 5th in the race, despite missing a left-front fender. Decker, in the No. 25 N29 Capital Partners Toyota, lost the fender on a restart when the field stacked up in front of her. Outside of that, she weaved her way through the multi-car wrecks and came home with her best performance yet. Her previous best finish was 7th at Road America last year. Decker joins Patty Moise and Erin Crocker as the only female General Tire pole winners at Daytona. Shawna Robinson is still the highest finishing female ARCA driver at Daytona, finishing 2nd to Bobby Gerhart in 1999. No female driver has ever won an ARCA Racing Series national tour event.
With both Decker and Munter inside the top-10, combined with Tom Hessert's 4th-place finish and Michael Self's victory in the Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tire, Venturini Motorsports marched out the back gate with four drivers finishing in the top-10. Self's win in the No. 15 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota gave Venturini Motorsports its 45th career ARCA Racing Series victory. Self also became the 20th different driver to win under the Venturini banner, adding his name to a "who's-who" list of winners, including Bill and Billy Venturini, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Brennan Poole, Kyle Benjamin, Kevin Swindell, Erik Jones, Austin Theriault, Todd Gilliland, Tom Hessert and Christopher Bell to name several. It was also Venturini's 2nd win at Daytona. John Wes Townley first took Venturini to Victory Lane at Daytona in 2013. Crew chief Kevin Reed was the chief for both Townley and Self, five years apart.
Longtime ARCA Racing Series crew chief Crystal Bates also had a big night. Bates, normally the crew chief on Wayne Hixson's 2 car, took on the role of tire pressure specialist on the 2 car driven by Andrew Belmont during the race. Bates assisted all week on the 2 and 3 cars, coming away with two top-10 finishes, a career-best 2nd for Willie Mullins in the Crow Wing Recycling No. 3 Ford and a career-best 9th for Belmont in the No. 2 ModSpace Ford. Longtime ARCA driver/car owner/crew chief Andy Belmont, the crew chief for Mullins at Daytona, oversaw the 2 and 3 cars at Daytona.
"I was assigned to the 2 car but I helped with both, or at least I tried to," said Bates.
"I've never had a good run at Daytona, so that's awesome, and both my parents were there, so that was even better."
Bates was up against some adversity on pit road after Belmont was involved in an on-track skirmish that caused right-front fender damage.
"You have to get it right. You have to equal what the left side tires would be during the race so it doesn't change the handling of the car. You try and keep the pressures equal on both sides at Daytona, as opposed to the short tracks where we usually use stagger to help the car turn."
Bates will return to her crew chief duties at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville April 7, crew chiefing the 2 car with Joe Cooksey scheduled to drive.
"We're going to run both Salems, obviously the dirts, Nashville and maybe IRP (Lucas Oil Raceway)," said Cooksey.
Norm Hutton Racing's Shellie Stewart, 37, also had a big night at Daytona, crew-chiefing Kirk Horton to a solid and career-best 13th-place finish on the lead lap. Stewart, the mother of 15 and 17 year-old kids, works full-time in Hutton's shop back home in Reading, Pennsylvania and is instrumental in all facets of car preparation, chassis-wise, motor-wise, bumper-to-bumper.
"We got the chassis from Hendrick Motorsports…it was a Kasey Kahne car," said Stewart. "Jeff Spraker put the composite body on it and I worked with him on that."
Stewart, co-owner of the team, also hinted toward her getting in the driver's seat down the road.
"I've been working with Steve Fox (Pocono driving instructor and ARCA driver) at Pocono. I definitely want to drive…last Pocono, maybe Salem."