By Vincent Delforge, special to KickinTheTires.net
What an incredible end of the race! A scenario worthy of a Hollywood movie!
A race largely dominated by Ty Gibbs. The 2021 ARCA Menards Series champion made a perfect copy. But all the attention quickly shifted around 20 seconds behind the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
Indeed, for a few seconds the rookie Jake Drew believed he had just won the championship, but Jesse Love was able to take advantage of a mistake by Trevor Huddleston in the very last lap to finally get the trophy of the 2021 champion of the ARCA Menards West Series.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2021 West Series Finals in Phoenix.
Practice – Qualifying session
There were to be 36 drivers, they will finally be 34 at the start of the Arizona Lottery 100 on the 1.0-mile Phoenix Raceway. Stafford Smith (No. 38) being on the other side of the Atlantic for professional reasons and Andrew Tuttle (No. 11) asymptomatic but Covid-19 positive having to stay at home.
A single 90-minute session to prepare the car setup and set the best time.
In this race, brand-new 2021 ARCA Menards National Series champion Ty Gibbs was the fastest. He took pole position with a new track record of 135.064 mph (26.654 seconds). This is his first career pole in four starts in the ARCA Menards West Series. He was ahead of his teammate Sammy Smith, 2021 ARCA Menards East Series champion and Taylor Gray who had been the fastest for most of the session. No major incident during the session except a brief caution for debris.
Rookie Jake Garcia (DGR) amazes with an excellent fourth position for his debuts.
The best of the seven title contenders is Trevor Huddleston in 13th position followed by P.J. Pedroncelli (14th), Jesse Love (15th), Jake Drew (17th), Cole Moore (20th) and Todd Souza (23rd).
Rear ends failure and shortened session for Travis Milburn, 27th. The first 30 are qualified on time, the last four via the provisional. This slightly modifies the last two lines of the starting grid.
Gentlemen start your engines!
Well, almost for everyone. Soon after starting, PP1M’s rookie Ryan Roulette accidentally touches the engine kill switch. Its Toyota No. 77 refusing to restart, it will be pushed by the tow truck. This will delay the start of the race since two additional pace laps will be performed behind the pace car.
And it’s gone for 100 laps with polesitter Gibbs off to a great start, almost an early start? Or was it the others who were sleeping? Sammy Smith was overwhelmed by Taylor Gray seconds after the green flag was waved.
The second lap started badly for one of the title contenders. P.J. Pedroncelli received a love tape from Conner Jones and spun in turn 2. Fortunately, he does not touch anything and can leave very quickly without causing a yellow flag. But he is far behind everyone. His father and teammate Paul Pedroncelli is heading to the garages, officially because of a brake problem … But it is mainly to be able to help the son during the pit stops.
Gibbs crushes the competition because after five laps, apart from Gray who follows less than a second, the third is already close to three seconds behind! One lap later, Gibbs took a lap from P.J. Pedroncelli whose tires had suffered. Gibbs weaving their way through traffic with incredible ease. You could almost believe you are seeing a chase on TV between the police and some runaways on the highway, so great is the speed difference between him and the lappers!
In the 10th lap, the six other title contenders are all between 13th and 20th position. Drew led the group in front of his teammate Huddleston and Love. Moore, Iest and Souza were not far behind.
The first yellow flag was raised on lap 14 when Toni Breidinger and Caleb Costner clashed between the Turns 3 and 4. The young female Venturini Motorsports driver finished in the wall with heavy damage to the right rear. Brian Kamisky, then in 23rd position, receives the free pass. Pedroncelli took the opportunity to go to his pit box to check his car and make some adjustments. He is 24th and now the first driver with one lap behind the leader.
On the 18th lap, Gibbs executed a good restart and perfectly controlled Gray who tried to overtake him. The top-5 is completed by Daniel Dye, Drew Dollar and Smith. Behind the fight is intense but fair play between teammates from BMR Love and Moore, but only for the 16th position.
On lap 25 Gibbs is one second ahead of Gray and already almost four seconds ahead of the Dye-Dollar duo!
On lap 28, Gibbs scared a little when rookie Sebastian Arias, whose his first start in his career, slipped just ahead of him as he took a second lap on the Colombian driver. Pedroncelli is just ahead and is threatened too to lose a second lap on the leader, but he will be saved by the second yellow flag of the race.
We are on lap 30 and Bobby Hillis Jr. spins exiting Turn 2 after contact with Souza. If Hillis, Jr. manages to avoid the worst, Costner cannot, as he slows down on Turn 2 and is pushed by Dollar who does not slow down despite the flashing yellow lights. Costner will hit the inside wall with the right front. The tow truck arrives there but he manages to restart by himself.
The free pass is awarded to Pedroncelli who can return to the leader’s lap and regain hope. He took the opportunity to go back to his pit box to make new chassis adjustments.
The restart is given on the 35th lap. In front of no big changes except the Rev Racing drivers Nick Sanchez and Rajah Caruth who exchange their position at the end of the top-10. Parker Chase lost a few positions and found himself in the group of title contenders. After a difficult start to the race for Dean Thompson, who is sailing two laps behind the leader, he finally seems to have a better pace.
On lap 36 Drew regained 14th position in Love after the latter had a better restart. Moore, Iest and Souza are just behind. Huddleston, very comfortable in Phoenix as always, is at the door of the top-10 and best representative of the ‘group of seven.’
Third caution on lap 39 when Jones lost control of his No. 17 Chevrolet between the Turns 3 and 4. Takuma Koga benefited from the free pass.
At the restart, Gray is very threatening on Gibbs. He tries to emerge better from turn 2 and is side by side with the JGR driver entering turn 3. The two pilots almost touched each other but things are going well, and Gibbs retains his leadership.
Behind, one cannot dream of a better scenario with the fight between all the drivers of the ‘group of seven”’between the 13th and 19th position!
On lap 45, Huddleston passed Drew for 13th position and Iest made the same on Love for 16th. At this point in the race Love is once again virtually one point ahead of Drew. Travis Milburn retires due to transmission problems. He had also broken his shift lifter a few laps before. Difficult day for the driver of the No. 78 Toyota of Velocity Racing.
The fourth yellow flag comes on the 52nd lap. It’s the halfway break. All the pilots head for the pitlane for the regulatory five minutes break. Conner Jones is the free pass.
The mid-term ranking is therefore as follows: Gibbs, almost undisputed leader ahead of Gray, Dye, Smith, Dollar, Garcia, Sanchez, J.P. Bergeron, Gracie Trotter, and Chase for the top-10.
Max Gutierrez, Caruth, Huddleston, Drew, Iest, Love, Moore, Souza, PJ Pedroncelli, Eric Nascimento, Johnny Borneman III, Kamisky, Koga and Jones in 24th position are all on the lead lap. Bridget Burgess (-1), Dean Thompson (-2), Josh Fanopoulos (-2), Arias (-3), Roulette (-6), Breidinger (-6), Hillis (-6), Milburn (-10 DNF), Costner (-11) who returned to the track and Paul Pedroncelli (-50 DNF).
Restart on lap 57 with another attempt by Gray on Gibbs. The two drivers are side-by-side for almost two laps, but Gibbs keeps the advantage when the fifth yellow flag is waved following the accident between Fanopoulos and Breidinger in Turn 2. The free pass is for Burgess in 25th position.
At the restart on lap 64, Gibbs fully anticipated Gray’s attack and easily retained the leadership. But everything will have to be redone for him because two laps later Nascimento, who was doing a decent race, goes straight into the wall of Turn 4. The shock is violent, and he will have to give up. Thompson receives the free pass and now finds himself one lap behind the leader. Dye takes the opportunity to go in his pit box. He had been experiencing vibrations since the break.
The restart of the 71st lap will be the last. Gibbs will lead the race by managing his tires and his lead. Quickly getting out of the reach of opponents. If Gray make the illusion by staying around two seconds. Sammy Smith and the others will be more than 10 seconds behind Gibbs when the checkered flag waved.
Who will be the champion?
While everything seems more or less frozen for the victory and the places of honor, it is not the same as regards the fight for the title of champion.
Huddleston, 10th, leads the ‘group of seven’ but knows that is not enough. The other six being too close behind him.
Moore takes the advantage over Huddleston for 10th place on lap 85. The BMR pilot tries everything for everything.
On lap 86, in the midst of a fight with Chase, Love hit Costner’s left rear by taking a lap over the rookie. If Costner has to go through the pitlane to fix it, Love can continue on his way, but his car has suffered and he will lose speed due to a loss of engine power.
Love loses contact with his opponents. Worse still for him, Drew overtook his teammate Huddleston on lap 92. Since Chase is sandwiched between Huddleston and Love, it allows Drew to be virtually tied on points with Love.
A lap after the leader Gibbs begins to catch up with the last of the ‘group of seven’ and he took a lap from Pedroncelli and Iest, then 17th and 18th respectively. This puts an end to their hopes.
On the 95th lap Love loses 14th position against Dye who has solved his vibration problem. At this stage of the race, Love loses the championship by one point against Drew!
Dye is quick and he passes Chase and Huddleston in the laps that follow.
The incredible misunderstanding
Gibbs goes under the white flag and is about to put Love a lap when he crosses the finish line a winner 29 seconds later.
Gibbs wins the Arizona Lottery 100 having led from start to finish. He does the sweep since he had already won the season opener in Phoenix. This is his third win on this oval in four races. Its less good result being a second position. Gibbs who also wins the Valvoline Lap Leader Award for leading the most lead laps of the season as he did previously in the East Series and the ARCA National Series this year!
All attention and cameras quickly turn to the driver of the No. 9 Ford. The excitement grows in the pitlane. Drew’s team members are already raising their arms, thinking their driver won the championship.
And then it’s the ‘drama.’ Huddleston, then 14th, mistakenly thought the race was over, slows down entering Turn 1. A mistake that will cost his Bruncati Racing teammate the title. Opportunistic, Love, who was almost two seconds away, did not slow and swooped in on the No. 6 Ford. He comes up to him and passes him from the inside with ease. Huddleston cannot react in time.
This is the most important pass of the season because it allowed Love to regain that missing point and pass under the checkered flag as champion!
The two drivers tied in points (438) but the tie was broken by the number of victories, 2 to 0 in favor of Love.
Love wins his second consecutive championship with his crew chief Travis Sharpe and allows his team Bill McAnally Racing to bring home an 11th trophy. Never before in West Series history have the top two in the championship finished tied on points.
“I knew what I needed to do,” Love said. “They communicated with me that we were minus one. I knew that we would win the tiebreaker. I knew I had to get away from him when I got to him and get by him cleanly with no hiccup.”
BMR’s owner Bill McAnally confirms that you always have to believe in it even in difficult times: “Preparation meets opportunity equals luck we were there to capitalize! Tightest Championship I have ever experienced, and they all ran so close together in the whole race.”
Behind Gibbs, the top-five is completed by Gray, Smith, Sanchez and Bergeron. Rookie Garcia finished sixth ahead of Dollar, Caruth, Trotter, and best representative of West Series regular drivers Moore in 10th position.
Moore finished third in the championship just two points behind Love. Despite being the fastest of the title contenders during the race. A very lively race between the seven drivers who could mathematically be crowned champion. Most of the race they did it together. Brawling hard but cleanly for every position. He will settle with the title of rookie of the year.
Pedroncelli, who managed to come back despite a catastrophic start to the race, said: “Got spun by the 17 on lap 2 or 3 resulting in going a lap down. Came back and got back into the top 15 but just was fighting a I’ll handling car with flat spot tires from the spin.” The beautiful story of 2021 ends in fourth position in the championship. He fails just five points behind the champion. But he, the outsider, is now a driver to be reckoned with in the future. And it’s also a great victory.
As for Joey Iest, contender throughout the race, he finally finished fifth in the championship with only eight points behind.
Like his number, Huddleston finished sixth in the 2021 standings.
Souza as usual has not given up and is already looking forward to 2022: “Way too free. Made a lot of adjustments to try to get better. Just ran out of laps. Brand new car. Very happy with it but we just missed the setup a bit. It will be better in March!”
Josh Fanopoulos: “We struggled getting the car together to make the show. We loaded the car when the paint was still wet! Only to have another setback…. the ramp on the hauler decided it was a good time to break.
“We didn’t have the time we needed to go through the car and unfortunately it showed. We fought a loose car and a rookie to Phoenix racetrack. After a incident that started with 2 other cars collected me into the wall we had to retire from the race due to overheating.”
Joe Nava (PP1M’s owner): “We brought a rookie driver to one of the hardest tracks in our series. When taking the track behind the pace car, Ryan made a Rookie mistake, he hit the engine kill switch. Throughout the race he made steady progress. Ryan brought the car home in one piece and not a scratch. Best part of all he was happy, and his sponsors were happier.”
Ryan Hale (Bobby Hillis, Jr.’s spotter): “Not a very good race for us. Something happened to the toe. Wheel was 2-3 degrees to the right. So, we just rode around. When we changed tires at half the right front was corded.”
Eric Nascimento: “The first 50 laps Chloe (car’s nickname) was super free and at the break we changed tires and made some adjustments to tighten the car up. It was much better after the break. Unfortunately, on my lap 65 went into turn 3 and I went straight to the wall. Thought I saved it but got the wall off turn 4 and ended our day. Something had to fail but not sure what because all the damage from the wreck. Really disappointing”
Ryan “Gamble” Roulette: “Phoenix was a learning and team building event. We started the race with a few hiccups, came together and solved the issue and went back out with a clean run. We went there with the goal of finishing the race in one piece and gaining experience. Accomplished both goals. We look forward to running Phoenix again with a better grip.
“Overall, it was an amazing experience, I was blessed to work with a great organization (PP1M) and partners like Bellator Recruiting Academy for this race. The amount of support I have received was so huge, even the NASCAR tow truck drive was on board to get me on the track!”
Takuma Koga: “P23 today. I couldn’t get a satisfying result. Thanks to Jerry Pitts Racing crew for the support and encouragement all the year.”
Bobby Hillis Jr.: “Feeling like we ran better overall than last year but ended up being two positions further down the order than last year. Overall was feeling pretty good about everything until after Portland. Really still feel like we threw away a really good finish there.
“Anyway, although I live here Phoenix seems to always be my nemesis. The early schedule did me no favors. I’m a up around 9-10 and in bed around 2 am kinda guy. Getting to the track in time for the early meeting and practice was a struggle. Especially since we didn’t get home from parking the hauler and unloading until 12:30.
“It was pretty much downhill from there. The brake issues on the yellow car raised it ugly head again in practice even though I thought we addressed it and it was fixed. The seals in the left front caliper was leaking again and the pedal went to the floor intermittently. Nothing to do with no time or resources at the track I would have to live with it.
“Couple scary moments on track during the race but I just tried to ignore it and soldier on. The end of my day pretty much happened around 35-40 (laps) when I spun coming out of turn two in front of a large pack of cars. Thought for sure I was going to get collected in a big pile-up in that one but all the cars behind me drove masterfully and managed to miss me. Was sitting there dead in the water bracing for an impact that thank god didn’t happen.
“Flat spotted all the tires and had a wicked vibration after the spin. Had to slow way down just to get to the halfway break so we could change the right-side tires. Changed the left front after the spin but it was the only left side tire I had in the pits. The left rear would have to remain on the car for the rest of the race and it was damaged as well. All of that relegated me to a 29th place finish at the season finale. Phoenix continues to be my nemesis unfortunately!
“Finished 10th overall in points for us with the money we spend in definitely a victory though. Thanks for all your help Vincent!!! Appreciate everything always! Better luck to all of us next year…”
Caleb Costner: “Yesterday was an uphill battle right from the start. The team we raced for had some sickness related issues which prevented crew members from attending the race. So, when we showed up at the track there was my crew chief, the car, my buddy and me. Anyone who knows anything about racing, knows that almost makes it impossible to get through tech, practice, make adjustments, crew the car and have a decent day on the track.”
“We started the day off by rolling through tech but had issues, so we made adjustments, made it through tech then almost missed the drivers meeting for having to push our car and pull our pit box to the pit road. Literally ran to get changed in my drivers suit, ran to the drivers meeting and ran to the car for practice.
“We struggled to find speed in the car early, made some adjustments and tightened it up a bit to have a better drive off and called it a day to save our tires since we are underfunded and couldn’t afford $6,800 in tires alone for the entire race. After practice we knew we would have to have some sort of extra help to pit the car in the race. My dad who was able to finally come to his first race to watch and enjoy, actually got thrown into a fire suit and became a crew member for the race!
“Onto the race, before we even left pit road, we started having radio issues, once we got the radio fixed (so we thought) I left pit road and was on the backstretch when the leaders took the green flag putting us half a lap behind from the start.
“Once on the track I realized the radio was still not working and I had NO radio communication with my spotter or team and was flying blind with the leaders coming around. The 55 was around mid-pack and came on my high side which I didn’t know was there and some contact was made. Shortly after that, the entire field was under another caution because of the 27 spins. Out of nowhere the No. 15 just flat dumps us UNDER caution for what we still have no clue what for.
“The 15 could have easily ended our day but I kept the car off the wall. However, we had transmission issues. and had to be rolled back for me to get going back in the right direction. Because it took so long to get going back in the right direction, we went down more laps than we ever should have and that killed us as far as trying to make spots up on the track.
“It wasn’t until we came into pit from the caution incident with the No. 15 to assess damage, that we made a radio swap, and I could finally here my spotter and team but I still could not talk to the team. My crew chief and dad helped tape down one of the damaged fenders and away we went. Thank God, we made it to the mid break with no more issues.”
“During the mid-break stop we made a minor adjustment to the car and put tires on. From the back we passed up to the 25th place car but we were still down in 30th from losing all those laps from the incident with the No. 15 earlier which made it impossible to gain any spots even though we were faster than cars in front of us.
“As the day wasn’t already enough of a struggle, with 20 to go, I lost my brakes. I had to pump my brakes the entire last 20 laps just to baby it home. The good news of the day is we finished the entire race and did the best we could with the hand we were given.
“I will say we gained a lot of experience and learned a lot. Also, it was very encouraging to have other respectable drivers and team owners come up after the race and say the positive and great things they did knowing the situation I was in and adversity we faced.
“It’s tough to take a day like we had yesterday and be over the moon about it but you have to make the most of the opportunities given and I am happy that we did the best we could with the situation we were in.
“So glad my family was able to be there and I wanna say a huge thank you to Innovative Tiny House, Savage Surf Boards and West End Hardware for coming on board this weekend. I’m thankful for all the people that have helped us this season in anyway and all that continue to help make this racing thing happen. I’m looking forward to the future though and what all it holds, that’s a wrap on the 2021 season.”
Complete race results: www.racing-reference.info/race-results/2021_Arizona_Lottery_100/AW/
Final driver standings: www.racing-reference.info/standings/2021/AW/
The 2021 season is over, it was superb from start to finish.
See you right here in Phoenix in March 2022 for the start of the 69th season of the West Series.
Featured Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Luis Torres via Vincent Delforge.