Thursday, July 20, 2023

OPINION: We need to talk about how much Toni Breidinger has improved

PHOTOS: @ToniBreidinger

by Ben Schneider Staff Writer

Toni Breidinger deserves a lot of credit for the steps forward she’s taken this season.

Let’s be honest: the beginning of Breidinger’s career in the ARCA Menards Series was rather underwhelming. She has run the majority of her career with Venturini Motorsports, one of the series’ top teams whose entries are regular contenders for wins and championships. Corey Heim, Chandler Smith, and Jesse Love all won races for the team last year, while Love already appears to be well on his way to winning this season’s championship.

To Breidinger’s credit, she has always done a solid job bringing the car home in one piece. Breidinger has failed to finish just seven of her 42 career ARCA-sanctioned starts, and her only appearance on this site came following the 2021 combination race at Phoenix with the ARCA Menards Series West.

Historically, however, she has often struggled to match the pace of her teammates. After a top-ten finish in her ARCA debut at Madison in 2018, Breidinger slipped back to 12th and 18th in her two additional starts for VMS that season. Following a two-year hiatus that included a tryout for the W Series and a full season in the Carolina Pro Late Model Series, Breidinger returned to ARCA in 2021. After a five-race stint with Young’s Motorsports that was supposed to include a partial schedule in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, she returned to Venturini Motorsports in July having scored a best finish of only 12th with Young’s team. Breidinger rebounded a bit to pick up a pair of ninth-place finishes for Venturini, but these would be the lone bright spots in an otherwise forgettable year.

Last season, Breidinger stepped into Venturini’s flagship No. 25 car as the team’s only full-time driver -- the Nos. 15 and 20 would both use driver rotations throughout the season -- though this only amplified her struggles. In 20 races, Breidinger scored only six top-tens and, perhaps more troubling, only four lead-lap finishes for a team that won four times with three other drivers and nearly won the series’ Owners’ Championship with their No. 20 team. Her struggles at Daytona and Talladega were particularly criticized on social media, as the FS1 broadcast aired radio communications during both superspeedway races that appeared to indicate Breidinger may not have been running wide open. All told, Breidinger was well off the pace all season, as even a then-career-best finish of eighth at Salem saw her finish five laps behind Love in second place.

However, in 2023, Breidinger has made tremendous strides in improving both her performance and results. After a 23rd-place run at Daytona, she was on pace for a career-best finish at Phoenix in what I described at the time as “unequivocally the best run of her ARCA Menards Series career.” Unfortunately for Breidinger, she was taken out in a late-race crash with Leland Honeyman Jr., who was ironically driving her former No. 02 car for Young’s.

While it would have been easy to let such a disappointment leave a negative impact on her season, Breidinger instead used it as motivation and has repeatedly shown noticable improvements in pace year-to-year. At the ARCA Menards Series East race at Dover, Breidinger scored a then-career-best of seventh and likely would have finished in the Top Five if not for a late mechanical issue under caution. She eventually got that top-five finish in the main ARCA series at Berlin last month.

Then came Saturday night, which marked Breidinger’s best overall weekend in ARCA to date. After qualifying fourth - ahead of both Venturini teammates - Breidinger proved her qualifying pace was no fluke. She ran as high as fourth in the race and even pulled away from Love during the second segment. Although Love eventually worked his way back up to third, Breidinger hung on to match her career-best with another strong fifth-place finish.

These aren’t the only times Breidinger has impressed this season. At Kansas in May, she finally got the opportunity to make her debut in the now-renamed Craftsman Truck Series that had been planned, but never materialized, during her time at Young’s. Now driving for TRICON Garage, Breidinger brought the truck home in a respectable 15th-place, breaking Hailie Deegan’s record for best finish by a woman in a Truck Series debut. Subsequent finishes of 24th at Gateway and 17th at Nashville mean Breidinger has completed 444 of 446 possible laps in a very competitive Truck Series, another sign of a massive step up from where she was a year ago.

Breidinger’s future could take a handful of different paths. Her GR Cup commitments for Toyota have seen her scale back to a partial ARCA schedule, though it’s worth noting that the ARCA races at Berlin and Elko were not on her originally announced schedule at the start of the year. These additional opportunities in both ARCA and Trucks this season have allowed her to gain even more valuable seat time. While she still has a long way to go before Cup Series conversations are warranted, Breidinger has grown from a driver who repeatedly finished multiple laps behind her ARCA teammates to one who can challenge them at some of the series’ most demanding short tracks.

That’s quite impressive, and whatever her future holds, her improvement is something that should not go unnoticed.

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