From Brandon White | ARCA
Labor of Love: Jesse Love denies Connor Zilisch at Watkins Glen to earn fourth consecutive ARCA victory
WATKINS GLEN, New York — Jesse Love’s eighth victory in the 2023 ARCA Menards Series season was simultaneously his most unpredictable.
Love only had one lap to pass race leader Connor Zilisch as a light rain began to fall around Watkins Glen International with five laps remaining. As the two reached the final turn, Love nudged Zilisch out of the groove to narrowly steal the win in Friday’s General Tire 100 at the Glen.
The afternoon up to the final lap had been a grind for Love, which only added to the surprise of being able to celebrate with his Venturini Motorsports crew on Watkins Glen’s frontstretch.
“I can’t believe it,” Love said. “I look like a blind dog drinking a smoothie on a road course. I had to calm down after I fell back to fourth and I had to regroup and learn because I probably wasn’t going to win it. Lap by lap, I just wanted to get one percent better. That’s all I try to do.”
When the conditions were dry, Love found himself in a heated battle with his teammate Brent Crews, who like Zilisch was making his ARCA Menards Series debut.
Utilizing his experience from two full-time seasons in the Trans Am Championship TA2 class, Crews looked like a seasoned road course veteran as he regularly swapped positions with Love. By the time the last caution flag of the race waved for a crash involving Jack Wood, Love and Crews were second and third.
The driver Love and Crews were chasing amidst their spirited fight was Zilisch. Despite having to deal with a broken sway bar arm, Zilisch maintained the torrid pace he established after passing polesitter Corey LaJoie for the lead early, putting himself in a great position to triumph in his maiden ARCA Menards Series appearance.
With the final caution and subsequent rain shower creating a conundrum that saw most of the field take on rain tires, Zilisch knew he had to be conservative with the treacherous conditions while also keeping Love and the others behind him.
Zilisch’s cautious strategy didn’t work out in his favor, with Love muscling his way around Zilisch in the final corner to steal the victory. Although the damp track was challenging for everyone during the one-lap shootout, Zilisch believed he could have been slightly more aggressive.
“It’s so frustrating,” Zilisch said. “You lead that many laps in a race only to lose it in the last corner. Everything was against me with the sway bar arm disconnecting, which slowed me down a bunch for 15-20 laps. Then it started raining and we had to come down and take tires. I kind of took it easy because you never know what the rain is going to be like when you’re leading.
“Jesse was going for the win, and he did what he had to do.”
Zilisch’s maturity earned the respect of Love, who had to get the most out of his car to have a shot at the victory. Love commended both Zilisch and Crews for their performances under the adverse circumstances and expects to encounter the two young prospects again as he pursues more wins, both probable and improbable.
“Hats off to Connor Zilisch,” Love said. “I hope he doesn’t think [the bump] was dirty. It was borderline, but I had to do something. He left the door open for me to do something when he got into the rumble strips.
“Brent Crews and Connor Zilisch are two of the best up-and-coming race car drivers in the country right now and they put that on full display today.”
With his victory, Love continues to make ARCA Menards Series history by becoming the 13th driver to win four races in a row. Should he win the next two races, Love will break the all-time record that currently stands at five consecutive victories between Tim Steele, Bruce Gould, Jack Bowsher and Harold Smith.
Crews placed third behind Love and Zilisch at Watkins Glen, with William Sawalich and veteran Dale Quarterley rounding out the top-five.
Kris Wright, who had stayed out on slick tires in the wet conditions, brought his car home sixth. Andy Jankowiak, Zach Herrin, Stanton Barrett and Jake Finch completed the top-10 finishers.
The turnaround from Watkins Glen to the next ARCA Menards Series race is a quick one as the series returns to action Sunday, Aug. 20 with the running of the Dutch Boy 100 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds at 2 p.m. ET on FS1 and FloRacing.
See the latest and greatest from the ARCA Menards Series:
Photo's: ARCA | Bryan Bennett | Toyota Racing | VenturiniMotorsports