Hailie Deegan completed a masterful ARCA season opener at Daytona with a runner up position, as Natalie Decker and Dominique van Wieringen are caught up in a mid-race crash while running in the top-10
The traditional ARCA Menards opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway provided once again thrilling race action, with all the three ladies on track delivering competitive performances.
The hype for the highly anticipated Daytona stock-car debut for NASCAR rising star Hailie Deegan was further increased when the 18-year old lady topped the Friday practice session:
“That was the real drafting practice that I had with more than five cars”- she commented afterwards. “I needed that, and I didn’t get a lot of that in the test. It was really good leading the pack too. Felt super stable, not darty at all".
Making her ARCA debut, Canadian Dominique van Wieringen also showed very promising speed, as the Daytona newcomer was third in the second practice session after leading the mid-January speed tests in the #30 Rette Jones Racing.
Former pole-winner Natalie Decker was also back to the ARCA field, as the Wisconsin lady joined Ken Schrader Racing for the season opener. Decker was 10th in the second Friday practice and then qualified 20th for the Lucas Oil 200 race, with Deegan lining-up in 8th and van Wieringen in 10th.
It was the first ARCA race as part of the NASCAR group, effectively kicking off a new era for the championship. Michael Self took pole for Venturini Motorsports; it was the sixth career pole for the former Daytona winner, who started alongside Andy Seuss on the front row.
When the green flag waved on the 2020 season, it was a great start from Self, who cleared his competitors in the opening metres. But the first neutralization was just around the corner, as Andy Seuss was tagged on the back-straight and spun out of control on the grass and crossed the track to hit the wall, also causing troubles to the #88 of Scott Reeves, who tried to take evasive action.
Hailie Deegan was up to fourth after a stunning first lap, with the other two ladies respectively in P10 and P18.
At the restart on lap 6, Self and Mader fought for the lead and Deegan moved up to third, before dropping down to eighth soon after losing the draft. Van Wieringen moved up to fifth, with Decker also making up several places.
The second yellow flag was brought out on lap 13, when the #97 of Jason Kitzmiller suffered an engine failure. Some racers took advantage of the caution to come in for the first pits.
Hailie Deegan was again quick at the restart on lap 17, moving up to sixth, but it was again another short green flag stint, as the #48 of Brad Smith spun out of control from a backmarker position. The lead drivers pitted on lap 21, with Natalie Decker advancing to fourth.
The stops proved costly for Drew Dollar, who received a drive through for leaving the pits with the gas-can attached and had to come in for a second stop under yellow while running in the leading positions.
At the restart on lap 25, Dean led the field from Holmes, but the driver of the #23 made a move stick for P1. Natalie Decker and Hailie Deegan ran close in seventh and eighth position, with Decker always looking comfortable in the leading pack and focusing on being patient. Van Wieringen dropped to P15 after the stops, but tried to work her way up the standings.
Unfortunately, on lap 39, a big crash involved more than 10 cars and wiped away the winning hopes of half the field. In the process of passing a lapped car, Connor Hall and J.J.Pack made contact, squeezing Natalie Decker and igniting the first "Big One" of the season.
Mader, Ferrier, Seuss, Heafner, Decker, Van Wieringen, Pack, Dean, Repko and Huff were forced to retire and the race was temporarily red flagged.
"Got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time" - said Natalie Decker, who had been running a very solid race until the wreck. "Still had a great run while we were in it. Grateful for Ken Schrader Motorsports, Fury Race Cars, Tony Eury Jr and N29 Technologies for the ride! Will get back at it next week!" - she concluded.
"What a race at Daytona" - commented Van Wieringen on her social medias. "We qualified 10th and was racing great until a big wreck in front of us forced us out of competition. Nothing I could do to avoid it, I wish we could've been there in the end to see how well we could've done."
Hailie Deegan managed to avoid the accident but lamented some vibrations possibly caused by a flatspot. When the race resumed under yellow, Deegan found herself in a promising 5th place, with Michael Self again claiming the lead.
The Californian girl was stuck on the outslide line in 6th position for many laps, running very close to Dollar as the top 4 opened up a small gap. When the cars went back to the single line, Deegan experienced her first laps in bump drafting and, on lap 50, Chuck Hier went hard into the wall after making light touch with the #4 DGR Crosley Ford.
Luckily, Hier emerged unscathed from the big impact which completely destroyed the front end of his #11 Toyota. It certainly wasn't a deliberate hit from Deegan, who rejoined in P5 and moved up to third place at the green flag, as she took advantage of the favourable inside line behind Self and Holmes.
The race proceeded under green flag for twenty more laps, with the drivers patiently waiting in single-line. Corr and Herbst, fighting for sixth place, slowly lost ground to the top five, until smoke started to come out of the #17 car of Tanner Grey who was running in fourth behind his teammate Deegan. Grey was later black-flagged when his Ford engine started to spill oil all over Dollar's windshield and retired with ten laps to go.
A yellow flag was then deployed to clear the track from a debris, and Hailie Deegan prepared for the breath-taking last laps around the famous Daytona venue without the potential help of her teammate behind. The race went back to green for the sixth time with four laps to go and the young lady made the most out of the leader's slipstream, moving up to second. Michael Self took the prestigious chequered flag after the 80 laps, ahead of an outstanding Hailie Deegan. Dollar was third, with Corr and Moffitt rounding out the top-5.
With her runner-up spot, Deegan equals the best ever finish for a woman at Daytona and claims her best career finish in the ARCA series.
“Pretty much at the end there, all I wanted to do was finish,” - she commented ecstatic after the race. “My goal for this race was top three to top-five was a victory for me. I was totally fine finishing second. I wasn’t going to try to do anything to Michael. It is a long season and I have to race against these guys week in and week out. It is best to stay on good terms with them.”
Hailie Deegan will come back to the ARCA Menards championship for its second round at Phoenix on March 6th, while Natalie Decker will have another go at Daytona next week, for the season opener of the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series.
Van Wieringen, after an impressive debut, is schedule to return to ARCA for the Talladega round.
In Hailie's words:
"My goal for this race was top three to top-five was a victory for me. I was totally fine finishing second."
Cover ph Credits: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images