By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Saturday’s Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona International Speedway has as diverse a field as the ARCA Racing Series has seen in a long time.
The race marks the first time ARCA will use composite bodies at a restrictor plate track, giving a fair playing field for all 39 drivers who’ll accept the 80-lap grind. The historic field consists of long-time veterans, a Navy Academy grad, female teammates and young guns in top budget teams.
Let’s begin with Venturini Motorsports teammates Natalie Decker and Leilani Münter.
They’ve already made history as the first female teammates in ARCA Racing Series history. Their historic weekend continued Friday, with drivers both qualifying in the top-5 and Decker claiming her first General Tire Pole Award.
Decker became the first driver since Erin Crocker in 2007 to claim an ARCA pole at Daytona. She also joined a sorority of female drivers with ARCA poles that includes Crocker, Milka Duno, Patty Moise and Shawna Robinson.
Daytona will be Decker’s superspeedway debut after seven starts in 2017 that were highlighted with a seventh-place finish at Road America.
Münter is heavily involved in activism outside of racing, a passion that led her to pilot the No. 20 Vegan Strong Toyota Camry. Münter’s sponsor promotes the importance of healthy eating and will be campaigning at different tracks throughout the season. The Rochester, Minnesota native will start fifth on Saturday.
If the Venturini teammates can hang on in the pack and avoid the chaos, they could accomplish a much bigger milestone and become the first female to win an ARCA race.
Starting alongside Decker is Zane Smith, one of three NASCAR Next drivers. Smith came up 0.001 seconds short of Decker’s pole pace in qualifying. Fellow NASCAR Next drivers Chase Purdy and Riley Herbst are also in the event, with all three program members set to start in the top-10.
Herbst has one of the top-tier cars, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing with former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker calling the shots. Herbst is expected to be an early favorite to win the championship after winning at Pocono and finishing fifth in the series standings last season.
From high budget to unsung drivers who are in their 60s and competed in Cup before Decker and Herbst were even born.
The ageless Mark Thompson is the only driver competing in both the ARCA race and the Daytona 500. He made history three years ago when he became the oldest pole sitter in ARCA history at the age of 63.
While he’ll start mid-pack, the aviation expert could be a sleeper and potentially become the oldest winner in ARCA history – a record currently held by Iggy Katona, who won at Daytona in 1974 at the age of 57.
Former Cup Series All-Star driver—you heard it—1992 All-Star driver Dave Mader III will make his first ARCA start at Daytona after qualifying 28th, a spot better than eight-time Daytona winner Bobby Gerhart. Not only this is Mader’s first start at the World Center of Racing, it’s his first ARCA start since Atlanta in 1994.
Mader surprised a lot of people after having the fastest time during testing last month and was fastest during first practice. For him it’s a dream competing with the other 38 drivers, and it’s quite the story how he still has a passion of racing at 62 years old.
A driver not among the 39 competitors is defending race winner and series champion Austin Theriault, who won seven races and finished 19 out of 20 races in the top-10. Theriault has no confirmed ride for 2018.
One driver’s misfortunate became another’s gain, as Will Rodgers will replace Theriault in the No. 52 Ford. Rodgers competed in the K&N Pro Series West last season, finishing fifth in standings with two runner-up results at Sonoma and Evergreen. Rodgers also went 2-for-2 in the K&N Pro Series East, winning at both Watkins Glen International and New Jersey Motorsports Park.
With goals of competing in NASCAR, United States Navy Lt. Jesse Iwuji will have to work his way through the field after qualifying 35th. He’ll be one to watch at the 2.5-mile superspeedway as a driver who isn’t afraid of a challenge.
The last driver to keep an eye on is Andrew Belmont, son of former ARCA mainstay Andy Belmont. Andrew hasn’t competed in an ARCA race since Berlin in 2010, but he’s excited about the opportunity of carrying the family torch.
Belmont has kept himself busy since his last ARCA start, working on cars and racing modified on dirt tracks around Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Like Iwuji, Belmont will have some work to do Saturday and do something his father wasn’t able to do with a trip to victory lane.
Once the green flag drops it’ll be every driver for themselves. The race will come down to who can stay in the draft and avoid the carnage.
With a field this diverse, it’s bound to be an exciting race that’ll create headlines from start to finish.