Last season’s ARCA Menards Series visit to the Irish Hills of Michigan brought nothing but smiling eyes for Sheldon Creed. Winless through his first 24 series appearances, Creed finally put it all together, leading 65 of the race’s 100 laps to earn his first career series victory. Not only did it break a winless streak, it also launched him onto a path that culminated with the 2018 series championship.
Creed’s win seems like it came deep in the season for an eventual series champion. After all, it was the eighth race of the 20-race season meaning the year was nearly half over before Creed scored his first win of the year.
But Creed’s win in the eighth race of the year isn’t the only time in recent memory that the series champion didn’t find his way to victory until mid season. Chase Briscoe, who was the 2016 ARCA Menards Series champion, also waited until the midway point of his championship season before tallying his first win of the year at Winchester Speedway.
Two drivers currently in the hunt for the ARCA Menards Series championship are looking to follow in Briscoe and Creed’s footsteps. Munford, Alabama’s Bret Holmes (No. 23 Holmes II Excavation/Champion Power Equipment Chevrolet) moved into second in the series standings following the race at Charlotte, a race in which he put himself in position to win late in the race before he crossed the line in eighth. He followed it with his second top-five finish of the season, a fifth-place effort last Friday at Pocono Raceway. He now sits just thirty points behind championship leader Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota).
Holmes will be making his 50th career start in the Michigan 200 and it’s a race he believes he can use to not only get his first win but position himself to fight for the series championship.
“One of our main goals for the rest of this season is to be consistent and finish within the top five every week, I feel like we’re achieving that goal right now,” said Holmes. “We’re still a fairly new team, so there’s always things we can work on to be better. If we can continue to be consistent, I know we will have a chance at the championship. I’m confident we’ll be there at the end of the season, hopefully with a trophy in hand. I’m excited for Michigan (International Speedway). Shane (Huffman, crew chief) has a great track record there. He feels it’s one of his strongest tracks. I feel like we’re going to have a really solid day with all of Shane’s knowledge of the track and his history there. I know I have a few things to work on as far as getting a handle on the track, but Shane will be there to coach me through it.
Holmes has a lot of experience in his corner that could propel him to that heretofore elusive first career series win. Crew chief Shane Huffman led two MDM Motorsports teammates to victory, Brandon Jones at Charlotte and Harrison Burton at Pocono. Huffman has also won races as a crew chief in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. A former driver in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, he and Holmes have quickly found a common language that has improved the team’s performance and results over 2018 dramatically.
“Shane and I sit down after every race and talk through what we need to work on to be a better team,” said Holmes. “Our communication as a whole has really improved since the beginning of the season. It’s not something you can work at until you’re at the track and racing. Shane brings a lot of experience as a crew chief and driver to our team. He’s helped me develop as a driver over the past few months, and it shows in our finishes. I feel like the (No.) 23 crew is in a really good place right now. I have no doubt in Shane and our crew with everything that they’re bringing to the table. They’ve all been a huge key to our team that we’ve been lacking the last two years.”
Holmes isn’t the only championship contender looking to use a mid-season win to ignite a title run.
Joe Graf, Jr. (No. 77 EAT SLEEP RACE Ford) earned his first career ARCA Menards Series win about 90 miles west of Michigan International Speedway last August in a fender-banging duel with Zane Smith. His Chad Bryant Racing team found its way to victory the last two races at Charlotte at Pocono with Ty Majeski behind the wheel and Graf would like to use that momentum to propel him to his second career win and to get back in the championship fight. He’s currently fifth in the standings, 135 points out of the lead.
“The last time I was in Michigan, I ended up in Victory Lane, hopefully we can do it again,” he laughed. “No, seriously, I realize that Michigan International Speedway is a monster compared to Berlin Raceway, but that’s fine with me. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to come back to Michigan and the opportunity to get back in Victory Lane.
“Last week’s finish was okay, but we’re looking for more. A lot more. I have a good feeling about Friday’s race and hopefully will give us the finish we need to get some momentum and consistency on our side.”
With just eleven races remaining to get back into battle for the championship, Graf knows time is running short. But he also knows wins mean you’ve scored maximum points and that’s the best way to get back into title contention.
“At this point, we’re going for win,” added Graf. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see our Chad Bryant Racing team throw some strategy calls out there to get us some track position and an opportunity to get ourselves a win or two. For us, we know that if we can win races – or even finish in the top-five then the points will take care of themselves and hopefully give us an opportunity to get back into this championship fight.”
Graf will be doing double duty over the course of the weekend at Michigan as he will make his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut driving for Richard Childress Racing on Saturday.
Practice for the VizCom 200 at Michigan International Speedway is slated for 8 am ET on Friday, June 7, followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 12 noon, with the 100-lap, 200-mile race slated to go green shortly after 6 pm ET. The race will be televised live on FS1. ARCA for Me members can access free live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live chat for all on-track sessions at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. For ticket information log on to MISpeedway.com or call 888-905-7223.