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Back in October, at Kansas Speedway, Natalie Decker said it was her goal to make history and win the ARCA Racing Series championship.

The 22-year-old struck first on Friday afternoon, earning a statement-making pole with Venturini Motorsports for the Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona International Speedway.

Simply put, the 2018 ARCA Racing Series season has a lot going for it. The full-time roster has an intriguing mix of veterans and top prospects, the most diverse schedule in stock car racing and its best television deal yet — split between FOX Sports and MAVTV.

Let’s start with Decker.

The Eagle River, Wisconsin native garners strong reactions, both positive and negative in racing circles. There are some who hold her in high regard and believe she can be the next female driving superstar to fill the void left by Danica Patrick, or even better, exceed those expectations.

There are others that believe she doesn’t have the on-track results to warrant the push and attention she receives.

So in that sense, the 2018 season is a put-up or shut-up season, because there are no excuses driving for the elite Venturini Motorsports program and veteran crew chief/owner Billy Venturini.

“No hesitation,” she said. “Danica (Patrick) has done such a good job of paving the way for all girl drivers. There are a lot of them coming up, and they’re all fast. I want to have a good showing tomorrow night for all of them, and I know I have the right team to do it with.”

Natalie Decker makes history with ARCA Daytona pole

Natalie Decker captures ARCA Daytona pole

Natalie Decker scored the pole for the annual ARCA Racing Series event Friday at Daytona International Speedway.The Eagle River, Wisconsin, rookie qualified with a top speed of 181.859 mph in her No. …

Meanwhile, second-year driver Riley Herbst agrees this is a championship-or-bust season too. Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, Herbst won at Pocono Raceway last season and finished fifth in the standings, despite missing the first of race at Daytona due to an age restriction.

Now, his 2018 effort has been bolstered by the addition of former Cup Series crew chief Bootie Barker.

“Definitely championship or bust,” Herbst said. “I made some mistakes, especially on the dirt tracks and couldn’t keep the fenders on sometimes. The championship was probably a longshot last year but I kept us out of it. But I feel really good about this year and it is championship or bust, for sure.”

Joe Gibbs Racing ARCA program adds veteran Cup Series crew chief

The feel-good championship contender could very well be found in West Virginian Travis Braden. The two-time CRA Super Late Model Series champion won in his debut ARCA appearance at IRP back in 2016 and then took over the Fike Racing No. 27 in the second-half of last year.

After finishes of fourth, eighth and 11th at Winchester, Kentucky and Chicagoland, Braden was able to piece together an agreement to drive the car full-time this season. It nearly fell apart several times during the winter, but it’s something that all sides believed in and fought for.

“It was definitely a mutual feeling on both sides,” Braden said. “I had the opportunity to drive the car a couple of times last year, a one-off deal and didn’t really think anything of it, and I was thankful.

“Then we had a relationship, and it came together, fortunately we were able to piece it together.”

Braden doesn’t have a ton of experience on plate tracks, having only completed the season-opener last year, but it’s the short tracks where Braden expects to quickly prove himself with his new team.

“I’m really looking forward to Nashville, and some of the places in the Midwest where I’ve raced a lot at,” Braden said. “I think we’re going to be on the learning in at a place like Daytona, but I also think I can make a difference as a driver at those short tracks, especially early in the year.

“And then, once we build the notebook, I think we could be pretty good everywhere come summer.”

Other contenders could be Alabama’s Bret Holmes, former ARCA winner Gus Dean and IMSA sports car driver Max Tullman.

FOX Sports and MAVTV team up for full ARCA Racing Series television coverage

Matt Weaver

Matt Weaver

– Matt Weaver is an associate motorsports editor at Autoweek. Before becoming a journalist, he was a dirt track racer and short track cheeseburger connoisseur.

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