By Todd Engle, Special to the Kansas City Star
The ARCA Racing Series presents its drivers with the most diverse set of tracks in stock-car racing.
And no one, prior to 2017 series champion Austin Theriault, was able to conquer them all in one season.
Theriault won seven races this season, including five of the last seven, and also became the first ARCA driver to win on a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road course.
“We’ve continued to work hard, and I’ve tried to study as much as possible,” Theriault said. “I’m just very thankful the races turned out good for us at those tracks, and it’s just awesome. When you look back five years from now and you say you won at every type of track, people will look back and say it’s a successful season.”
Theriault wrapped up the points title prior to the running of Friday night’s season-ending Kansas ARCA 150 at Kansas Speedway. His last race of the season was more victory limp than lap: Theriault hit the wall and was knocked out of the race on Lap 55, finishing 25th.
It was the lone blemish on a remarkably consistent season. His worst two finishes before Friday were sixth and ninth.
Theriault won only one pole this season, but learned a valuable lesson along the way, especially after winning his first ever road-course race.
“We realized at that point, you don’t have to have the fastest car to win. You just have to be there when it counts, and we’ve seen that at least three times this year.”
Michael Self won Friday’s race, his first career ARCA win in his ninth start. Self had three top-five finishes in six previous ARCA starts and entered the day with eight career wins in the K&N Pro Series.
Self was sixth on the last re-start with nine laps to go but catapulted himself to the front.
“I went three years without driving at all (due to lack of sponsorship), and came back to Kansas last year, and I was out of my element,” Self said. “We’ve been so close other times. It just feels awesome to get it done. I’ve never driven harder than I have. I was screaming in the backstretch in my helmet about how much I wanted it.”
Zane Smith won the pole on Friday, which came with two prizes: a pedal car that Kansas Speedway traditionally gives its pole winners, and a $10,000 check for winning the General Tire Pole Award.
Smith wasn’t shy about which one excited him more.
“I think two days before I came down here, I was stalking the Kansas Speedway Instagram or Twitter. When I was a little kid I had one of those and it was my favorite toy,” said Smith, who finished third. “I think that’s by far the coolest pole award.”
Natalie Decker made her ARCA Racing Series debut earlier this year, and finished 12th on Friday in her seventh start of the season.
Decker announced her plans to race the full 2018 season. She becomes the fifth female driver to compete in a full season, and the third since 2013.
“I’m just here this year right now to learn, and hopefully then next year to do more than just learn,” Decker said. “I really came in with no experience in this kind of car, and the pit stops and how they do the re-starts. My goal was to learn all of that, so if I had the opportunity to run a full season I can be competitive with everyone else.”