By Tadd Haislop, ARCA Menards Series
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Saturday was Ty Gibbs’ night. He won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway about an hour before he clinched the 2021 ARCA Menards Series championship by taking the green flag for the evening’s Reese’s 150.
Nick Sanchez did not get the Ty-Gibbs-night memo.
Sanchez, the 20-year-old rookie from Miami, Florida, and product of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program won the ARCA Menards Series season-finale Saturday night in dramatic fashion for his first series victory.
Gibbs led the first 94 of 100 laps around the 1.5-mile paved oval in Kansas City, Kansas, before a caution paused the action with six laps to go. A green-white-checkered/overtime finish ensued, which was exactly the opportunity Sanchez needed.
Sanchez, restarting in third place on the bottom of Row 2, took advantage of a battle between Gibbs and Corey Heim and snuck underneath the leaders entering Turn 1 of the penultimate lap. He was able to hold off a charging Gibbs on the final lap to take his first checkered flag in his 22nd ARCA Menards Series start dating back to last season.
“Aero,” Sanchez said with a laugh when asked after the race how he pulled off the winning pass. “I just tried to take the air from them. Just tried to have a good restart. My guys — I can’t say enough about this group. They gave me a hell of a piece. We were in it all day. The last restart just played in our favor.”
Sanchez became the sixth different ARCA Menards Series winner this season and continued his upward trajectory on the track. Sanchez made the jump up to full-bodied stock cars after winning the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award in 2019 as the most outstanding minority driver at NASCAR’s weekly level in a late model.
Both Sanchez and Rajah Caruth, teammates at Rev Racing, have announced plans to run part-time schedules in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season while competing full-time in the ARCA Menards Series.
“While racing full-time in ARCA, Rev (Racing_ assisted me in looking for opportunities to move up the NASCAR ranks,” Sanchez said earlier this week. “I met with many teams and personnel, and almost all of them directed us to BJ McLeod Motorsports. After meeting with BJ himself, I feel like we both share the same collective goals for next year. I’m excited to learn and get the most out of our car’s performance and get some good finishes for myself and the team.”
And what a way for Sanchez to cap his 2021 before setting his sights on additional Xfinity Series starts this year.
While Sanchez was celebrating in Victory Lane, Gibbs was preparing to receive the championship trophy. Gibbs, the 19-year-old from Huntersville, North Carolina, won 10 of the 20 races on the schedule and finished outside the top five just once — at Talladega Superspeedway in April, when a crash resulted in his 27th-place finish.
With 99 laps led in Saturday night’s season-finale at Kansas, Gibbs extended his year-long total to 1,689 laps led, easily giving him the Valvoline Lap Leader award for the season. It’s the most laps an ARCA Menards Series driver has led in a single season in the modern era.
“Just keeping my head down; just keep hammering down and and knock off the wins,” Gibbs said of his mental strategy through the course of the season, claiming he did not allow himself to assume he would end the year as a champion. “I feel like driving off confidence is just hard. You have good weekends and bad weekends. And that’s racing.”
Gibbs, who won the 2021 Sioux Chief Showdown championship and the CGS Imaging Four Crown before clinching the overall title Saturday, also secured the Bounty Rookie Challenge (rookie of the year) title in the ARCA Menards Series for 2021 with his second-place run at Kansas.
Gibbs qualified as a rookie this season since he was not old enough to run the full ARCA Menards Series schedule in 2020.
Mark McFarland, Gibbs’ crew chief on the No. 18 team for Joe Gibbs Racing, clinched the Cometic Crew Chief of the Year award for the second consecutive season.
Gibbs’ 10 wins in 2021 place him in a tie with all-time series wins/championships leader Frank Kimmel for the third most victories in a single ARCA Menards Series season during the modern era. Only Tim Steele (12 wins in 1997 and 11 wins in 1996) has won more in a single year.
“It’s awesome for (grandfather/team owner Joe Gibbs) and my whole family,” Ty Gibbs said. “I wouldn’t be here without them at all. It’s just awesome. Family’s everything.”
Heim finished third at Kansas on Saturday night to close what was an impressive rookie season. While he fell short of the series championship after pushing Gibbs in the standings all season, he did secure the General Tire Superspeedway Challenge title for car owner Billy Venturini.
The General Tire Superspeedway Challenge is comprised of races on the ARCA Menards Series schedule at paved ovals greater than 1.5 miles in length. The challenge is contested among car owners, rather than drivers, so that a team using multiple drivers has the same chances of winning as a team with a single, full-time driver.
This year’s events in the challenge included Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Michigan International Speedway and Saturday’s finale at Kansas.
“It’s a whole team effort,” Venturini said during Saturday’s race after the challenge title had been clinched. “It was a great year. We raced a really good race team with Gibbs, and we made them earn it. And we look forward to a really good year again next year.”
Drew Dollar and JP Bergeron finished fourth and fifth, respectively, Saturday at Kansas as the last two cars on the lead lap.
Kris Wright, Kyle Sieg, Dean Thompson, Rajah Caruth and Parker Chase rounded out the top 10.
Sanchez finished the 2021 ARCA Menards Series season third in points behind Gibbs and Heim. Caruth, who ran full-time in the ARCA Menards Series East in 2021, finished third in East Series points.
“Momentum,” Sanchez said after his Kansas win. “It took us all 20 races to get here, but we got it. Doing some Xfinity racing for B.J. (McLeod) next year. I couldn’t be happier. Now I have a lot more confidence and a lot more to look forward to.”
As for the 2021 ARCA Menards Series champion, Gibbs has not announced his plans for 2022. But he is expected to take the next step in his racing career, especially with four Xfinity Series victories already on his resume following his triumph Saturday at Kansas.
Regardless, Gibbs’ 2021 season will go down as one of the most dominant the ARCA Menards Series has seen.
Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography