Last year, Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) spent the second weekend of June racing, but it wasn’t in the ARCA Menards Series event at Madison International Speedway. Eckes made his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut at Iowa Speedway that weekend, finishing eighth driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Eckes’s team, headed by veteran crew chief Kevin Reed, was at Madison last June and scored the victory with 15-year-old Chandler Smith at the wheel. Smith (No. 20 Craftsman/828 Logistics Toyota) will be back to defend his victory but will be behind the wheel of his regular ride. Both drivers will look to make it two-in-a-row, Eckes for his team and Smith for himself.
Eckes was an interested spectator last year as he watched from afar, prepping for his first Truck Series start.
“That was a hard race to watch,” Eckes said. “That was originally going to be a race I was in but things changed and Chandler did an incredible job. It was a real confidence booster then knowing my team could get it done and it’s a confidence booster going back knowing my team was the winner last year. It just hurt to watch it last year because wins are so hard to come by. I’ve always liked Madison so going back there this year with the team that won the race last year gives me a really good feeling. I think we’ll be strong this weekend, too.”
Eckes has been a quick study, not only in the ARCA Menards Series but in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series as well. Still just 18 years of age, Eckes has four career ARCA wins and sits fourth in the series championship standings. He qualified second in his first career Truck start last year in St. Louis and bettered that when he started from the pole for the season opener at Daytona this year. With a lot of success early in his career, it would be understandable if Eckes let the expectations of others put added pressure on him to perform. That’s not the case, it’s the pressure he puts on himself that drives him.
“There’s always pressure to perform, but the pressure I feel comes from myself,” he said. “I demand excellence, not only from myself but from my guys around me too. They do their job. They’ve given me fantastic racecars every week. We just keep having some really bad luck. You know, I don’t know if we can even call it luck, but we just aren’t getting the finishes we need right now. That’s hard to deal with because I want to go out and prove myself every week because we just don’t know what the future holds. I feel pretty good about next year but I want to go out and run well every week just in case.”
If there’s any pressure on Eckes in the ARCA Menards Series, he does a great job of disguising it. He’s currently fourth in the series standings, ground lost to teammate Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota) after missing the third round of the season at Salem in April. He is still very much in the championship battle though, just 85 points out heading into the tenth race of the season. But he’s as loose as anyone in the garage area and on the grid moments before each race goes green. If he’s feeling any of that pressure, he’s not showing it and he’s not letting it discourage him in his fight to get back into championship form.
“There’s been some speed bumps this year for sure,” Eckes said. “We are chasing points but at the same time we want to go out and win as many races as we can. If we can do that it will put us in a really good position. The last three weeks have been really tough on us. At Pocono we didn’t get enough practice and just over adjusted the car. At Michigan, I thought that was going to be a place that really fit my driving style. We went a lap down with a loose plug wire but I thought we still had a chance to finish in the top five then we ended up breaking an axle. If we can stop having days like that we’ll get back in this battle for the championship.”
Practice for the Shore Lunch 200 at Madison International Speedway is scheduled for 2:15 pm CT/1:15 pm CT on Friday, June 14, with General Tire Pole Qualifying set for 6 pm ET/5 pm CT, and the 200-lap main event slated for 9 pm ET/8 pm CT. The race will be broadcast live flag-to-flag on MAVTV. ARCA for Me members can access free live timing & scoring, track updates, and live chat at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. Fans can buy discounted tickets to the Shore Lunch 200 at Madison-area Menards locations for just $20, a savings of $10 per adult general admission ticket. For more information, visit MISRacing.com.