MOORESVILLE, N.C. – In his quest to become a key player in the 2019 ARCA Menards Series championship hunt, Joe Graf Jr (@joegrafjr) left Sunday’s rain-shortened Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 frustrated despite posting his first top-10 finish of the season for Chad Bryant Racing.
It was a chaotic weekend for the sophomore ARCA driver who saw his third start at Salem Speedway filled with leaps and bounds. From a cracked oil pan in practice to a strong fifth-place qualifying effort to an untimely caution and mistakes on pit road during the third race of 2019, Graf left the historic short track wondering “what if.”
“To a point it’s really frustrating,” said Graf. “We struggled the first two races to put ourselves on the map and I felt we could go to Salem this past weekend and really put our season back on track.”
With weather vastly approaching Sunday afternoon, the race wasn’t to 200 laps – but to halfway and with a long green flag run to stretch 89 laps, Graf learned his No. 77 EAT SLEEP RACE Ford Fusion was tuned to the longer run than a short sprint.
Starting a season-high fifth, Graf was able to maintain a presence inside the top-five, but over the course of the first 50 laps, a loose race car, especially in Turns 3 and 4 dropped him in the running to eighth before the car’s handling improved significantly the longer he ran allowing Graf to pick up his positions lost one by one over the next 35 laps.
Clawing his way forward, Graf was approaching the top-five when a caution waved for a spin in Turn 2. Despite being one lap down, the EAT SLEEP RACE driver was confident in his car’s capabilities and felt he could easily return to lead lap status.
When pit road opened, Graf came to his attention of his No. 77 team but with no pit road sign showing, he nearly overshot his pit before being boxed in by another competitor.
Unfortunately, those were the least of his troubles on pit road. A mistake by a crew member making a chassis adjustment cost the No. 77 team valuable seconds on pit road.
Graf returned to the track but lost four spots in the process. With rain approaching, the field went back to green for less than two laps, where Graf was able to pick up a spot to ninth before Mother Nature soaked the 0.5-mile track.
A short time later, ARCA officials declared the race complete with Graf scored ninth.
“We’ve got to clean up pit road,” added Graf Jr. “This isn’t the first time that we’ve encountered these type of problems this year and with the season getting ready to be really busy here soon, we need to be making up positions on pit road, instead of losing them.
“I’m frustrated because we had a fast race car. But we should be fast. There’s no excuses not to be fast. Everyone expects us to be and when I don’t perform to my expectations – I’m not happy. I expect us to contend for the win. Our partners expect us to win and Chad (Bryant, crew chief and owner) expects us to win.
“With every point crucial, we need to leave our problems in Salem behind us and focus on Talladega and make sure we’ve learned from the miscues of the first three races and be a lot better for the remaining 17.”
If there’s an upside for Graf Jr. – the championship points lead is still within reach. Unexpectedly, former series points leader Christian Eckes became sidelined Sunday morning with an unexplained illness. With his absence, the points changed significantly, and it brought several drivers including Graf within reach.
With three races complete, Graf maintains fourth in the championship standings and a mere 55 points out of the lead.
“First, my thoughts and prayers are with Christian, sounded Graf. “I hope he gets better and is able to get back behind the wheel at Talladega. But, with his misfortune, it’s made it anyone’s game when it comes to the championship lead.
“For us, we need to be as flawless as we can be moving forward. Finishing second at Talladega Superspeedway in one of the closest finishes in ARCA Menards Series competition last year, it definitely gives us some momentum for the next race – but we’ll need to execute in two weeks to stay in this championship hunt.”
About EAT SLEEP RACE:
EAT SLEEP RACE (eatsleeprace.com) is a racing lifestyle apparel company based out of New Jersey. Since 2001 the brand has offered a full product line including accessories and apparel for men’s and ladies. As one of the pioneers of motorsports apparel, the brand has deep roots in the racing industry and was created to offer fresh designs for all racing enthusiasts.
The company has expanded to now offer a dedicated children’s product line of apparel and accessories branded as the Fast Kids Club with it’s hot selling ABC book for future race car drivers.