ARCA at Daytona: The Grand Prize in a Treasured SeriesS

Photo credit: SimRacin40. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

ARCA: The Other Stock Car Series.

Though the advertising has changed on Frank Kimmel's car, presently featuring the colors of series partner Menards, ARCA's most recognizable driver enters Daytona in the same place he's always been: series champion, once again, but winless on the speedway that defines stock cars as a category.

Kimmel aims to change that, now backed by Win-Tron Racing after his surprise departure from ThorSport, with whom he was the 2013 title winner.

For Kimmel and his competitors, the reasons are obvious on the quest to win Daytona: inherent in the professional practice of auto racing is the desire, and implicit in the legacy of speed is the justification.

These are some of the stories of those armed with that objective admirable in competitive spirit, and welcomed this Saturday by a venue so iconic in racing for the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 presented by MAVTV American Real.

Gerhart's alliance with time

Consider Bobby Gerhart, a permanent story line when the ARCA tour arrives in Florida, with eight Daytona wins, all for his family team.

He'd like to be a permanent fixture at the wheel, too, and is embracing his age to do so.

With fifty-five years in his rear-view mirror, Gerhart has found new motivation for being the race's oldest winner. Iggy Katona was halfway to fifty-eight for his 1974 win, meaning that Gerhart would need to triumph in 2016 to claim his next honor, while also holding off Mark Thompson and Barry Fitzgerald, his sole elders on the entry list.

Along the way, Gerhart would like to secure all three victories up for offer; as the 2005-07 and 2010-12 winner, it would be Gerhart's third three-win streak. Part-time competitors as it is, Gerhart and his brother, Billy, put extra emphasis on Daytona, fielding cars so specialized they do not see track time elsewhere, even at the similar Talladega Superspeedway, which hosted Gerhart's only non-Daytona win. The lure of Daytona transcends all else in ARCA, including Gerhart's local ties to Pocono, a home race for a Pennsylvania family from the dirt track journeys of a generation ago, bringing about the team's strongest efforts, most meticulous testing, and wildest fuel strategies.

Perhaps unpopular for his continued success, or for the occasionally failed tech inspections, Gerhart may be more compelling than he is loved. Whether his presence carries weight for the records he could set, or for the added meaning to any driver who defeats him, is up to individual interpretation.

So, too, is the meaning in the numbers: each time Gerhart has lost at Daytona since his first win in 1999, it has taken him two years to return to P1. Unexplainable trends either side with the field for 2014, as Gerhart has just one defeat between the present and his 2012 victory, or serve merely to fill air time.

Gerhart will likely bank on the latter, and get plenty for himself while he's at it.

A Speedweeks preview

ARCA at Daytona: The Grand Prize in a Treasured SeriesS

Photo credit: Royalbroil. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Gerhart's isolated success ties into the unique style of racing witnessed at Daytona. His mastery comes with experience, and several of NASCAR's drivers will join the ARCA field to gain some.

Chase Elliott will compete in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports; he is Hendrick Motorsports' top prospect, and a highly-speculated successor to a four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, whose previous potential as a young racer draws parallels with that of Elliott. The listed owner on Elliott's ride is father Bill, the fastest man around Daytona in a stock car, though the entry will be closely aligned with Hendrick just as the Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-owned Nationwide program is.

As a Camping World Truck Series race winner, controversially in Mosport, and an ARCA victor last season at the large Pocono Raceway, Elliott, just a few months past his eighteenth birthday, brings a résumé as impressive as any in the field. Elliott's Daytona experience, however, consists only of a winter test with JRM, and to be a championship contender, avoiding errors, costly as they are in tight packs of race cars, at the superspeedways provides an opportunity to gain on less fortunate competitors.

Accordingly, Elliott aims to learn.

So, too, did development drivers like James Buescher, Michael Annett, Kyle Busch, and Ryan Newman, all of whom won this race while ascending the stock car ladder to their present-day Sprint Cup and Nationwide rides.

Elliott may just do the same, but he won't be too distinguished for running multiple races during Daytona's Speedweeks. Jeb Burton, replacing Kimmel at ThorSport Racing, will race a Camping World Truck entry under the same banner, fulfilling a thus-far two-week deal with the Ohio team that won both series' championships last year. Rumors suggest Burton, another Daytona 500 winner's (Ward Burton) son, and Elliott may team up at JR Motorsports later in the season.

Dylan Kwasniewski will battle Elliott for Rookie of the Year honors in Nationwide this year, having a full season with Turner Scott Motorsports lined up. Kwasniewski's championships in K&N Pro's East and West divisions make him a top prospect in NASCAR, and his 100% pole record in ARCA goes on the line as he qualifies for his second series race.

Also featuring in the Camping World Truck Series race will be John Wes Townley, last year's Daytona winner in the potent Venturini Motorsports Camry, and Tyler Reddick, the latest addition to Brad Keselowski's roster. Maryeve Dufault, slated to join Go Green Racing for some Nationwide events in 2014, may or may not contest both races, while Will Kimmel's limited Nationwide deal does not include Daytona.

Supporting cast

The headliners may be established, with futures lined up or wins in the past, families prominent or backing extensive, but Daytona's no place to discount anyone's chances.

Grant Enfinger, an ARCA veteran from Alabama with only minor experience in the NASCAR ranks, won two of his eight races in 2013. Enfinger and his Howard Bixman team may not have the pull of heavyweight entrants, but they remain worthy of consideration for Daytona's prize.

Win-Tron Racing's second driver, Terry Jones, has made fifty ARCA appearances in the last decade; his one top five comes on a superspeedway configuration in Talladega's 2013 event. Steady improvement would leave Jones even closer to a win in this, his first race since then, and with a performance that would reach the lofty target left by teammate Kimmel.

Carter 2 Motorsports brought a number of drivers to the Daytona test before settling on Alx Danielsson, a Formula Renault 3.5 champion from the 2006 season that also saw Formula One Grand Prix winner Pastor Maldonado run for the title. Opportunity in F1 never came for Danielsson, who now turns to stock car racing after exploits in sports cars. Carter 2 is small, and the team owner's legal troubles leave the operation clouded. Still, Danielsson brings experience from a world class training series, albeit in another discipline, and the motivation to start a new career where the last had stalled.

Leilani Münter, an advocate of eco-friendly racing and a carbon neutral driver herself, has open-wheel experience of her own in Indy Lights. Twice before, she has raced in ARCA's Daytona round, never once coming closer than twelve laps behind the leader. Her only other ARCA start, in Kansas, lasted just five laps. This year, however, Münter is backed by Venturini Motorsports, defending race winners, and has an opportunity for contention not previously afforded to her.

Brian Rose did have past chances, but spent seven years on the sidelines after violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy. In 2010, Rose returned, and earned a top ten result in one of his two ARCA starts in 2011. Having not raced in the series since, Rose will field a self-owned Dodge at Daytona this year, continuing his path to redemption. Mario Gosselin, an ARCA winner seeking his first series start since 2009, has a similar trail after a 2012 arrest kept his racing ventures far less frequent. He joins with Theresa Williams for this race.

Fanfare plays no role in determining the race winner, and for so many entries beyond the obvious few, that's a welcome notion.

The largest stage

ARCA at Daytona: The Grand Prize in a Treasured SeriesS

Photo credit: Royalbroil. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Don't think that means ARCA's plot is "us versus them," though.

ARCA's a community, large enough for telecasts consumed by hundreds of thousands, yet small enough to be home to second-hand Hendrick, Roush, and Penske vehicles knocked out of Sprint Cup by changing regulations and advancing age. It's prominent enough to feature some drivers who will appear in the top classes one day, yet underground enough to showcase mismatched headlight decals and unknown sponsors. It's important enough for professional drivers, yet open enough for amateurs with the same week-to-week occupations one may have assumed spectators more likely to hold.

None of that is opposed, but instead part of what makes ARCA so fascinating: big-time racing with a grassroots soul.

When James Harvey Hylton, age seventy-nine, announced that he would run his final race last year in Kansas, help from various teams ensured that he would have a competitive enough car to last the race and put in a respectable run.

When a car gets damaged, it is not uncommon for crews from around the paddock area, not always enclosed as a formal garage, to pitch in for the sake of sportsmanship so that someone can shamelessly parade around with an endearingly last-minute duct tape number, or a charmingly odd combination of bodywork.

When Daytona rolls around, even Bobby Gerhart, a winner so many times, drives his team's truck, fancier than most as it may be, from Pennsylvania to Florida and back for every February's race, gathering his thoughts alone at the wheel before an afternoon's race in the constant company of the circuit's toughest competitors, and a near week in the constant camaraderie of the circuit's greatest companions.

For the humble ARCA Racing Series, it's a nice treat to race on the greatest stage for stock cars, and in finishes like the 2012 edition that saw Gerhart rise from fifth to first in the final corner as the top four ran out of fuel, it's nothing less for fans.

The niceties may seem to diminish the priority of winning; in reality, they only enhance it. Weekends out of the spotlight emphasize how grand Daytona is, and gritty days underneath the cars only expand the wish for wins.

As a national tour with a local feel heads to the International Speedway in Daytona, "The Other Stock Car Series" gets its moment to award the same glories its counterpart does on a weekly basis.

United as traveling racers, even when opposed as competitors, ARCA's entrants vie for them this Saturday.