The speed Venturini Motorsports cars displayed Saturday in the Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tire was no surprise, especially after a pair of them qualified on the front row for the 2021 ARCA Menards Series season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
The surprise came in the way two of the four VMS cars in the race dropped out of contention.
Corey Heim won Saturday’s opener at the famed 2.5-mile tri-oval in Daytona Beach, Florida, with relative ease thanks to a last-lap push from his teammate Drew Dollar, the race’s pole-sitter.
Gracie Trotter and Derek Griffith, though, finished outside the top 20 after getting caught up in accidents.
The discrepancy for the most part is tied to the dart throw that is superspeedway racing.
Which is why VMS left Daytona thankful it entered the race with more darts than any other team in the field.
Teamwork wins … and sometimes loses
Heim and Dollar executed a white-flag restart in perfect fashion Saturday. Restarting second on the inside, Dollar, who at that point in the race was just trying to finish with a damaged race car, let Heim drift to the bottom lane at the green flag to assume the lead.
That advantage was all the No. 20 JBL Toyota needed. Neither third-place Bret Holmes nor fourth-place Ty Gibbs were able to build enough momentum to challenge for the race win as Dollar pushed Heim to the checkered flag.
The incident served as a reminder that, yes, the VMS cars were fast, but also that the 18-year-old Trotter and the 24-year-old Griffith were going through learning experiences in their first race on a superspeedway.
“My first experience at Daytona is definitely indescribable but absolutely amazing,” Trotter wrote in a message posted to her Twitter account Sunday. “We led laps, learned a lot, made good moves, made bad moves and realized a lot.
“You don’t realize how fast things actually happen at a track like that, it’s crazy!”
Griffith also tweeted after the incident, noting that he was “okay” and not suggesting any hard feelings toward Trotter.
With the exception of the 17 Laps Derrick Lancaster (Lap 28-32) and Tanner Gray (33-44) led Saturday, VMS cars held down P1 for the entirety of the race. Dollar, Trotter and Griffith split time leading the first 27 laps before the aforementioned crash, and Heim took the lead for good on Lap 45.
It’s a good sign for the team that has now won four consecutive ARCA Menards Series season-openers at Daytona. VMS figures to be strong again when the series returns to a superspeedway on April 24 at Talladega, where Dollar is the defending winner.
The drivers will just need to use their newfound experience to repeat the kind of teamwork that leads to the checkers, not the kind that leads to the wreckers.
Cooling from the heat of battle
Many in Saturday’s field would have been thrilled with a fourth-place finish at Daytona. Gibbs was not one of those drivers.
The 18-year-old had an up-and-down run in his superspeedway debut, but the way the final restart played out did not sit well with the driver of the No. 18 Monster Energy Toyota.
Gibbs restarted fifth behind Holmes, but once Heim and Dollar teamed up ahead of them, their chance at a win all but ended.
“It’s just frustrating to come out here and run fourth when you have a shot to win, and especially if you let your buddy in,” Gibbs said after the race regarding Dollar’s yielding to Heim. “If I did that, I wouldn’t even want to be out here, letting people in to win the race — just completely gave it away there.
“And the way this package is, you can hardly push, and you can’t really get to the bumper; you’re not allowed to lock bumpers, and (Heim and Dollar) did.”
Gibbs that night apologized for what he said in his post-race interview with FOX Sports.
“I just wanted to say sorry to everyone listening to that interview,” he tweeted. “I’m a hot head and I need to fix it. I will work on it.”
Gibbs is running the full ARCA Menards Series season for his grandfather’s Joe Gibbs Racing team this year. So the driver who led more laps than anybody on the ARCA Menards platform last season will have 19 chances in 2021 to improve upon what he deemed an unacceptable result in Race 1.
And Gibbs was not alone in his post-race frustration at Daytona.
“It’s extremely tough,” said Holmes. “There’s two guys playing strategy and they’re teammates, they can kind of really decide the race for the rest of us. We did all we could there.”
But as the defending series champion, Holmes knows a thing or two about focusing on the bigger picture.
Holmes and Gibbs left Daytona understandably frustrated with their finishes given the circumstances. But a handful of drivers who finished behind them Saturday left the track elated.
Kyle Sieg, the 19-year-old brother of the late Shane Sieg and current NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ryan Sieg, earned his first top-five finish in just his fourth ARCA Menards Series start and his first on a superspeedway.
Just six months after he was involved in a serious late model accident at Tennessee’s Kingsport Speedway, 48-year-old Derrick Lancaster matched his best ARCA Menards Series finish with a sixth-place run, his second top-10 finish in six series starts since 2014.
In his first ARCA Menards Series race, Andy Jankowiak, a 32-year-old modified racer from Tonawanda, New York, placed eighth.
Tenth-place finisher Sean Corr earned his 10th top-10 finish in the series dating back to 2008.
– Driving the No. 45 Pub Table Racers-FabForceTradeSchool.com Chevrolet for Mike Cheek, veteran racer Rich Bickle finished 15th in his first ARCA Menards Series start since 1996.
– Jack Wood, who is racing the full ARCA Menards Series East season in the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS Racing, fared better at Daytona (ninth) on Saturday than he did the previous Monday at nearby New Smyrna Speedway (13th). He’ll return to the track when the East Series returns to action Feb. 27 at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
– Of the drivers slated to run full ARCA Menards Series schedules in 2021, Heim and Gibbs rank the highest in points after Race 1. Heim with his win leads the series standings, and Gibbs sits eight points behind Heim in fourth place overall.
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