ARCA: Spectacular runs for Mandy Chick and Amber Balcaen at Daytona
The 2023 ARCA Menards Daytona 200 featured epic runs for the many female drivers of the series, including a top five for Mandy Chick, a spectacular charge from the back of the grid to sixth for Amber Balcaen and clean runs for Natalie Decker and Logan Misuraca - both on the verge of a top-10. Technical issues hampered Toni Breidinger's second half of the race after a big save midway through the race.
Historically a great platform for female drivers climbing the ranks of the NASCAR ladder, the ARCA Menards Series had a landmark season in 2022, with ten women taking the start of at least one round across the national, East and West championships. At Milwaukee, 6 female drivers shared the track – and at the first round of the 2023 season at Daytona, the figure was not far off: Toni Breidinger, Amber Balcaen, Natalie Decker, Logan Misuraca and Mandy Chick kicked off their season in ARCA, approximately one month after the collective test that saw Venturini teammates Breidinger and Balcaen topping the timesheets. The two women will contest a partial campaign with the top team owned by Bill Venturini and kept momentum in practice, both slotting in the top ten. In qualifying, though, the most impressive driver was Logan Misuraca: the 23-year-old driver of the #63 CELSIUS Chevrolet had an outstanding qualifying run and was ninth fastest. Misuraca, who is expected to run a partial season in ARCA, only contested one round of the East series last year – finishing in a respectable seventh place – before focusing on securing a bigger program for 2023. While it was her first start at Daytona, Misuraca is certainly not a rookie of the track, as she works as a driver for the NASCAR Racing Experience ride-along program at Daytona.
Toni Breidinger qualified the #55 FP Movement Toyota in P12, just a few places ahead of returning driver Natalie Decker. Decker had won pole position for the ARCA Daytona race in 2018 – an achievement that attracted the attention of the world of stock car racing. Since then, Decker made more history at Daytona, becoming the highest-place finisher in the Truck series in 2020, with her first top-five. Natalie's 2022 season, though, was more challenging than expected, as she battled uncompetitive equipment. Making her first start in ARCA since 2020, Decker had a solid weekend and qualified in 17th place her #53 SPLAT Ford run by Emerling-Gase Motorsports, in the team's first ARCA entry. Returning to ARCA after two appearances in 2022 was Mandy Chick: the driver of the #74 Rose Hulman Institute of Technology Chevrolet Chick earned her superspeedway license at the preseason Daytona test and is aiming for extensive track time in 2023. A student of mechanical engineering, Chick would be one of the stars of the race, after a start from 25th. Last but not least, Amber Balcaen (#15 ICON Direct Toyota) had a mountain to climb, after a technical issue in qualifying had put the Canadian at the tail-end of the starting grid in a huge 39-car field. Only confirmed for two rounds so far, Balcaen was determined to fight her way up in Saturday night's race. A caution as early as on the second lap neutralized the race when Tony Consentino was spun on the back straight. After a spectacular start, Balcaen was already up to 23rd position, while her teammate Breidinger had early troubles and pitted under yellow. At the restart, Connor Mosack led Jesse Love and Jason Kitzmiller – as Balcaen continued to make big progress and moved into P12, one place ahead of Mandy Chick. A second caution was out on lap 13, then followed by a red flag for a big accident involving Scott Melton. Almost 20 minutes later, the green flag waved again – and Balcaen made her first appearance in the top ten. Decker was also making up ground, in a clean run just outside the top ten for most of the race.
On lap 32, the lapped car of A.J. Moyer on the racing line caused trouble to the fast approaching pack; Jesse Love and Tim Richmond ended up collecting each other, with the latter making heavy impact with the inside wall. Sean Corr was leading from Christian Rose, as Kitzmiller – who had been on top for most of the first part of the race – had just slipped down to fourth. Another brilliant restart saw Balcaen moving up to sixth place. From there, the Canadian stuck with the front-runners until the checkered flag. After the mid-race break, Amber ran as high as third; Decker and Breidinger were both within the top-15, as also Misuraca – who had dropped down the order in the opening stages due to a gearbox issue but then had a steady recovery drive – managed to climb to ninth after the fourth yellow. Toni Breidinger had a fast car and navigated through the field to slot right behind her VMS teammate Balcaen. A series of contacts unsettled her #55 FP Movement Toyota, but Breidinger made a spectacular save when her car drifted below the yellow line. Having dropped down the field, though, the #15 machine likely sustained damage and struggled to come back towards the front. Early front-runner Kitzmiller also hit trouble and had to pit during the caution, as Greg Van Alst and Lavar Scott led the pack during a frequently interrupted stage of the race: Van Alst and Balcaen miraculously survived a contact with Andy Jankowiak's #73 car, who lost the rear bumper with 17 laps to go. Balcaen soon made her way back in the top-six and remained in contention for the win throughout – joined by Mandy Chick, seventh after a spectacular charge.
Balcaen avoided the spinning car of Dale Quarterley just in front of her with 9 laps to go and remained in the fight; she held the outside line in the intense finale and, despite having lost power steering with four laps to go, she brought home a very impressive P6 after a charge from 35th on the grid. "We got up to third at one point and thought we were gonna take the lead before the caution came out", she said.
"This was the craziest race I've ever raced in my life. We were 2 and 3 wide all race long, coming from the back to the front multiple times was a thrill."
Mandy Chick snatched fifth – claiming the spectacular result at only her third start in the series. The third generation racer, who recently turned 21, had a previous best finish of P16 at Milwaukee.
"Had so much fun and learned a lot!" - wrote Chick. "This was our career best finish in the ARCA Menards series and our first time at Daytona, we are thrilled to have a top 5. Huge thanks to my crew, I couldn’t do it without their hard work!"
Just like Chick, Natalie Decker kept her nose clean throughout the action-packed race and was able to seize opportunities to finish P14 – having just missed out on a top ten after the final restart, where she sat in P11. "The car was much faster in the second lane than the bottom but we were being patient riding around, waiting for the big one to happen but it never did", Decker summed up. "Coming to the checkered flag things got intense but we made it through and ended up 14th" Logan Misuraca's first ARCA Daytona 200 was just as positive. With a P18 at the end, the driver from Florida proved she has the speed for the top ten, as she battled gearbox gremlins also during the restarts. "We have such a strong car!" – she wrote. "Was able to get our #63 Celsius Chevrolet back up to 6th, but with all the action, restarts with no second gear and drafting we were able to pull off P18 and a clean car", she explained. "Learned a lot at my beautiful home track and am so proud of my incredible race team". Toni Breidinger was P23, after a more difficult second part of the race hindered by a few technical issues. Jason White led into the final lap, but couldn't hold off the fast charging Van Alst and Mosack – who had recovered from an early spin through the grass. 41-year-old driver-owner Greg Van Alst took a surprise win ahead of Mosack and Corr, with Scott and Chick rounding out the top five. The second round of the 2023 ARCA Menards Series championship, the General Tire 150, will be hosted at Phoenix on March 10.