By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
MADISON, Ill. — Christian Eckes was the only driver capable of keeping pace with Sheldon Creed throughout a challenging night at Gateway Motorsports Park.
But after contact with Creed on the race’s final restart, Eckes found himself mired in traffic. He could only watch on as the ARCA Racing Series points leader drove off to a dominant win in the PapaNicholas Coffee 150.
Eckes was battling Creed for the top spot in the high lane on a Lap 79 restart when light contact between the two sent the 17-year-old’s No. 15 Venturini Motorsports Toyota up the track and out of the racing groove.
The New York native quickly recovered, but the initial slowdown to save his car and the laps required to scrub the rubber from the upper groove off of his tires dropped him back to fifth. Eckes would rise just one position to finish fourth after the final run to the checkered flag.
“It’s unfortunate,” Eckes told Motorsports Tribune of his night. “We had a good car tonight in clean air. We got behind there, and it just never came back to us.”
Creed went on to win the event, leading a career-high 85 laps and dominating once Eckes was removed from contention. But despite the swing of fortune for both drivers due to their run-in, Eckes harbored no ill will for Creed after the race.
“I guess (Creed) did get into me, but whatever, it happens,” Eckes said. “It’s definitely disappointing because my guys brought me a great car. It’s unfortunate, but we’ll move on.”
The duo’s contact came in their fourth restart duel of the night. Gateway’s repaved racing surface and the application of traction compound to the upper groove made for a one-lane track for the majority of the field. Passing on the inside lane proved to be a steep challenge, and the leader held a sizable advantage in clean air.
Those factors combined to make restarts paramount to success, fostering intense battles in the few moments where drivers were packed tightly together.
“I was actually really surprised that the top came in as much as it did,” Eckes said. “It was extremely dominant. You couldn’t really pass on the bottom. You couldn’t go the outside because there wasn’t VHT in another groove.”
While he was disappointed with the end result, Eckes’ accomplished his main goal for the evening – gaining experience on the 1.25-mile oval ahead of Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. The Kyle Busch Motorsports prospect will make his second-career Truck start in the event, piloting the No. 46 Toyota.
“I definitely learned a lot for tomorrow when I come back and run the truck,” he said. “I’ll just have to come back and do the best I can tomorrow. As long as we have a good car like we did today, I think we’ve got a shot at it.”