By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
When Joe Graf Jr. took the checkered flag fifth at Iowa Speedway, it would be natural to assume that he would be happy with the run. Graf had never seen the 7/8-mile oval before, after all, and he had just one top five in his previous six ARCA Racing Series results.
But when he climbed out of his No. 77 Ford, the Chad Bryant Racing (CBR) rookie was less than pleased.
“No I’m not,” Graf told Motorsports Tribune when asked if he was content with his result. “We definitely had a car that could have run for a win there. In the closing laps I think we were the fastest car out there. I chased down the (No.) 41 (Zane Smith), but just ran out of time there.
“I have to thank my guys. They brought me a really fast race car. Thanks to Big Tine and everybody that’s helping me do this. Fifth isn’t bad, but I definitely feel like I could have gotten more.”
Graf’s frustration with a quiet fifth-place run is understandable. He’s been one of many young prospects lost in the shuffle at times this year.
In a season dominated by Toyota’s MDM Motorsports, Venturini Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, Graf and CBR have been left with an uphill struggle as the try to lead the way for Ford.
The Toyota domination this season has been apparent. Their teams have gone a perfect 12-for-12 to open the ARCA season, winning each race in convincing fashion.
That’s left drivers for other manufacturers – Graf, Travis Braden (Ford) and Max Tullman (Chevrolet) among them – overshadowed for the majority of the year. The group have come close at times, with Graf’s oh-so-close second-place run at Talladega Superspeedway leading the way, but victories have continued to prove elusive.
Times have been tough, but runs like the New Jersey native managed in Saturday’s Fans With Benefits 150 have kept him and CBR filled with hope.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge,” Graf admitted. “They’ve been strong. But Ford’s helped us out a lot. We’ve been bringing a really fast car to the track each week, and I think we should be able to go get a win or two this year.”
With his team continuing to improve, Graf hopes his own growing experience will be enough to elevate him into contention for wins through the second half of the ARCA season. Much like MDM’s Chase Purdy, Graf entered the 2018 season with little experience in a big stock car, leading to a steep learning curve with both the cars and ARCA’s diverse schedule.
“This is my first time at most of these tracks, and first year in a big car like this,” he said. “So it takes me about the first half of the race just to figure out the car and track. The learning curve’s been getting lesser and lesser over the year, so hopefully I’ll keep improving and we’ll be able to pull one out by the end of the year.”
Graf sits ninth in the championship standings leading into this weekend’s race at Elko Speedway, with four top fives and six top 10s in 11-career ARCA starts.