For eighteen-year-old Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota), his first two seasons in the ARCA Menards Series were fraught with frustration. Coming to the ARCA after a brief but successful career in super late models, Eckes expected to find similar success in the heavier, full-bodied ARCA machinery.
An eighth-place finish in his debut at Nashville in 2016 was his only top-ten run in a limited four-race inaugural season. Eckes found success in late models that year, winning the famed Snowball Derby and the Myrtle Beach 400. Coming off two major wins, Eckes came back to ARCA for a busier schedule in 2017. In ten starts, Eckes finished in the top ten nine times and was in the top five in four of those starts.
But victory lane eluded him.
Even though that first victory hadn’t come, Eckes and his Venturini Motorsports team were building the foundation for success.
“It wasn’t so much helpful in the aspect of the success I had, but helpful in the way of just getting laps,” Eckes said of those early days of his ARCA career. “I was very fortunate early in my career to get in great equipment and learn a lot, which then translated to the ARCA car when I finally got my first opportunity at Nashville.”
With a solid foundation built in limited runs in 2016 and 2017, Eckes scored his first career ARCA Menards Series win at Salem Speedway in April of 2018 by holding off a furious charge from his Venturini Motorsports teammate Chandler Smith over the final 50 laps. The win gave Eckes added confidence, and despite four finishes outside the top ten in the next six starts, Eckes found victory lane again on the one-mile dirt track at Springfield. From there, Eckes closed the season with a dominant win from the pole in the final short track race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“It meant a lot to finally just get an ARCA win, no matter the race track,” Eckes said. “It was a rough year and a half after the Snowball Derby where there was a lot of things but not one thing that was important to me – wins. I really put all my effort forward over the 2017 off season and realized I needed to be better. The spring race at Salem was where it all paid off and was definitely one of the best feeling wins in my career for sure.”
Not yet 18, and therefore not eligible to compete on tracks longer than one mile, Eckes was back for another partial season in 2018. A total of 13 starts were on the docket, and he again started with another eighth-place run at Nashville.
“The past few years have absolutely been crucial not only in my development but getting familiar with the cars and tracks of the ARCA Menards Series,” Eckes said. “It helps a lot to go back to places that I’ve been two or three times, and I’m lucky to have those past opportunities that are going to help this year especially.”
Eckes, now eligible to race on all tracks, returns to the ARCA Menards Series in 2019 for his first full season. He started the year off with a fourth-place finish at Daytona after winning the General Tire Pole Award in qualifying. He followed that with a third-place finish in the season’s first short track race at Five Flags Speedway. Two races in to the season, Eckes leads the series championship standings for the first time in his career and he’s heading back to Salem, where he earned that elusive first career win just one year ago.
“We won there in the spring, and our teammate won there in the fall,” Eckes said. “We know we should have a good setup. The Venturini team has had a lot of success there over the years and it would be a great place to get our first win of 2019.”
Eckes and the rest of the ARCA Menards Series return to action in the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 at Salem on Sunday, April 14. Practice is set for 11 am ET on Saturday, April 13 with General Tire Pole Qualifying scheduled for 3 pm ET that afternoon. The green flag for round three of the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season will drop shortly after 2 pm ET on Sunday. The race will be televised live on MAVTV and ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free at ARCARacing.com/login.