Venturini Motorsports’ Elko Recap: Christian Eckes Earns First Career Pole Award and Finishes Second; Decker, Smith and Fatscher Each Shine with Impressive Outings

The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards headed to Minnesota to take on the shortest track on the 20-race schedule, the 3/8-mile Elko Speedway, on Saturday night. The on-track action didn’t disappoint and all four Venturini Motorsports Toyotas finished in the top-10 after 250 laps of action on the bullring in the Sioux Chief PowerPEX250.

Christian Eckes was mere feet from victory in Minnesota last season, battling with race-winner Austin Theriault in a wild and dramatic photo finish that the 17-year-old will always remember. The 2018 version wouldn’t be as thrilling, but it still resulted in a second-place finish, this time by 0.857 seconds to Gus Dean.

The Middletown, New York native, looking to improve on his finish from the previous year, started off hot earning his first General Tire Pole Award of his career in his 21st start with a lap at 14.316 seconds (94.300 mph) in qualifying to put the No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota at the front of the field.

After leading the first 36-circuits of the race Eckes ran the rest of the night solidly inside the top-5 flirting to retake control of the top spot. Driving a smart race, Eckes was unable to maneuver around the race leader during the final 8-lap shootout, settling for another runner up finish in Minnesota.

“I’m real proud of my JBL Audio car and entire Venturini team. It was great to get my first career pole. This track has been great over the last couple of years to me. This place is awesome. I love this race track and it provides really great racing. I had a heck of a time out here tonight and we will be ready to go again at Berlin next week,” said Eckes.

In seven series starts on the season, Eckes added to his totals matching his first Pole Award to go along with his first series win back in April at Salem. He now has three top-5’s and four top-10’s on the season with 145-laps led.

Driver Chandler Smith seemingly had the car to beat as the 16-year-old short-track ace qualified fourth in the No. 20 Craftsman Toyota and led a race-high 160 of 250 laps. Making just his sixth career ARCA start, the rookie powered around to take the lead for the first time at Lap 36. Just one week removed from a runner-up finish at Iowa Speedway, Smith looked to be well on his way to victory lane as he worked out to a huge lead of six-plus seconds over the course of a long green flag run during the middle portion of the race.

A more chaotic second-half of the race would set up several restarts and Smith would battle side-by-side with Chase Purdy for the lead as the young duo put on a fantastic battle for the top position inside of 50 laps to go. At Lap 224, Smith went to the inside of Purdy looking to regain the lead and spun around to bring out the caution flag. Smith would hit pit road before restarting at the tail end of the lead lap and picking up a few positions to finish sixth.

“I’m really proud of this entire team tonight,” said Smith. “We were the class of the field and led a ton of laps with a great car under us. I can’t thank Venturini Motorsports, Craftsman and Toyota for the opportunity to do this. It was really disappointing to finish sixth after being so strong all night. But now it’s on to Berlin.”

In six starts in 2018, Smith has one win and five top-five results to go along with four General Tire Pole Awards. The Talking Rock, Georgia native also leads all drivers in laps led, with 527, despite only starting six of the 13 events on the schedule.

Natalie Decker qualified tenth in the team’s flagship No. 25 N29 Capital Partners Toyota as the 21-year-old fan favorite made her 20th career start in ARCA competition. While the rookie driver is seeing some tracks for the first time this season, Elko was a familiar feel for the Eagle River, Wisconsin native. Decker ran the ARCA race at Elko last season and has made a handful of super late model starts at the bullring.

Not everything was familiar territory as the team made a crew chief swap leading in to the weekend with Frank Kimmel shifting over to call the shots from atop the pit box. Kimmel went to victory lane at Elko himself in 2013 en route to breaking ARCA’s all-time win record and capturing his record-setting tenth series championship as a driver.

Decker utilized her past experience and new crew chief to stay out of trouble in a chaotic second-half of the race and brought her Toyota home in the fifth position. It was the second top-five finish for Decker and her first since winning the pole and finishing fifth in the season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway.

“The whole team worked together really well and I’m really happy,” Decker said with a huge smile after climbing from the car. “It was a really tough race so you had to just be aggressive out there.”

“I’ve always gone to him (Kimmel) for advice so to have him on the radio 24/7 is pretty nice. He’s wonderful. He was giving me good advice out there and I learned a lot from him today.”

“This track is definitely hard and I really enjoy racing here so it’s fun to come here in the ARCA cars. It’s our best finish on a short track so I’m really happy to go to Berlin (Raceway, in Marne, Michigan) now.”

Eddie Fatscher carried momentum into Elko Speedway for his third start of 2018 with Venturini Motorsports. Fatscher made gains in his first two starts while gaining valuable seat time after making the jump from late models to the ARCA car. The 16-year-old qualified fourth and finished eighth in his last start at Madison International Speedway.

Making his Elko Speedway debut on Saturday night, Fatscher rolled off the grid from the ninth position in the No. 55 Jenel Construction Toyota and moved up inside the top-five by the halfway point of what was a calm first half of the 250-lap event.

Fatscher was knocking on the door with 10 laps to go when fellow competitor, Chase Purdy’s car erupted in flames on the backstretch. Riding in Purdy’s wake, the young driver began sliding in the fluids laid down by Purdy’s disabled machine, and with nowhere to go, got sideways before making contact with the rear of the burning car.

After a 30-minute race stoppage to clear the track, Fatscher had to hit pit road with a flat right-rear tire as a result of his misfortunes and contact with Purdy. Returning with fresh rubber for the final shootout, Fatscher would finish ninth, just one spot away from tying his career best ARCA result, in what was a top-five contending car.

“First of all, I have to thank everyone from Venturini Motorsports for helping me out today,” said the Long Island, New York native, who was smiling the second he climbed from the car.

“Everyone on the crew, the pit stops were great and got us in and out of pit road really well. It was an awesome race. We slowly but surely made it from ninth to fourth before oil was dumped everywhere in front of us and we were just a sitting duck at that point and couldn’t do anything. We came back out with a new right rear and ended up P9. Not a bad day.”

Elko Speedway marked race No. 9 of a difficult summer stretch of 11 races in 11 weeks. The ARCA Racing Series heads to Berlin Raceway in Marne, Michigan next Saturday, July 21 for the Primera Plastics 200.