By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
Ben Rhodes, Michael McDowell, Austin Cindric, Ty Gibbs, and now Christopher Bell. What do all five of these drivers have in common one might ask? Not only have they all gone on to Victory Lane in a NASCAR national series this year, but all have also won multiple times in the ARCA Menards Series, ARCA East, or ARCA West Series in their career.
Kicking off the 2021 season, representation from former winners and champions in the lower levels has been high, proving that “the minor leagues” have some of NASCAR’s future stars — some of which have already made it to Victory Lane in the premier series. Michael McDowell waited 14 years before he would earn that elusive first victory while Ty Gibbs went 1/1 in the Xfinity Series.
McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion, competed in the ARCA Menards Series in 2006 and 2007 earning four victories. He finished runner-up in the ARCA championship standings to none other than ARCA icon Frank Kimmel. McDowell used his time in the series to move into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Darrell Waltrip and ultimately into the Cup Series with a young Michael Waltrip Racing.
McDowell’s road from ARCA has been a long one, with nearly 5,000 days standing between his last ARCA victory at Toledo and his first Cup Series victory at Daytona. In between those victories was a win at Road America in 2016 in the Xfinity Series with Richard Childress Racing. McDowell’s story and drive are enough to motivate anyone.
Christopher Bell was able to pass Joey Logano late to earn his first career Cup victory on the Daytona Road Course Sunday. Bell has minor experience in the ARCA Series but has an impressive record. Bell won 50% of the ARCA events he was involved in, winning at Salem twice in 2016 and at Kansas in 2017. His first ARCA victory came before his first asphalt Truck Series victory as Bell was making the full-fledged transition from dirt racing to stock car racing during this time period.
Bell also competed in the West Series in 2015 and 2018 with Bill McAnally Racing finishing a best of second at Iowa in 2015.
Though Ben Rhodes started in the East Series before NASCAR’s merger of ARCA and K&N Pro Series, his championship in 2014 is now listed under the ARCA banner. By winning the opening two rounds of the Truck Series to start 2021, Rhodes became the first driver to go back-to-back to kick off a Truck season since Johnny Sauter did so in 2013. Rhodes earned his first championship in the ARCA East Series in 2014, earning five victories in that season with car owner Steve Turner.
In 2015, he competed in 10 races for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. It was the following season though, that Rhodes began to click and find his home in the Truck Series, earning two top-five finishes with ThorSport Racing, his current team. And ever since debuting in 2016 with ThorSport, the organization has been his home, earning all five victories of his career with the organization. The championship in the East Series propelled Rhodes’ career into what it is today.
Despite not spending much time in ARCA, Austin Cindric earned one victory at Kentucky Speedway in 2016. Cindric used ARCA to hone his craft and get better behind the wheel of a stock car. His victory helped lead him into a full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride with Brad Keselowski Racing the following year in 2017. Cindric was also able to show how good he was on road courses, winning two East Series victories with Martin-McClure Racing at Virginia International Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
Cindric would go on to earn one victory in Trucks (the road course of Mosport in ’17) before moving up to Xfinity with Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing in 2018. Since, he’s earned nine victories, an Xfinity championship in 2020, and made his Cup Series debut in the 2021 Daytona 500 with Team Penske, finishing 15th after being involved in the big accident on the last lap. The experience gained running ARCA surely helped in Cindric’s transition from sports cars to stock cars.
The youngest driver on this list is Ty Gibbs, who picked up his first career victory in his first career Xfinity Series start on the Daytona International Speedway Road Course. The grandson of championship-winning team owner Joe Gibbs has been one of the hottest prospects to grace the racetrack alongside fellow competitors such as Sam Mayer, Chandler Smith, and others.
In his career, Gibbs has picked up eight victories in the ARCA Series, two in the East, and one in the West Series. Gibbs will be chasing Joe Gibbs Racing’s first ARCA championship in what could be just the beginning of the next potential superstar for the organization.
The representation of the ARCA Menards Series in all three NASCAR series is a sign that ARCA is important to the development of NASCAR’s future. Whether it be the veteran McDowell or hot prospect in Gibbs, ARCA is beginning to be a series not to be overlooked even with small field sizes.
Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography