By Vincent Delforge, special to KickinTheTires.net
Taylor Gray earned an emotional win in the General Tire 150 on Friday March 11, 2022, at Phoenix Raceway. The race was full of emotions for all the members of David Gilliland Racing (DGR). Gray dedicated his victory to Steven Stotts, DGR’s hauler driver, who died in the tragic accident which occurred on Interstate 20 on March 8 near Longview at Texas and in which John Zaverl and Michael Mizzelle were also injured.
This combined race between the ARCA Menards Series West and the ARCA National Series was full of entries with 40 drivers. That is the maximum authorized at the start of the race. Unfortunately, the Performance P-1 Motorsports team withdrew due to lack of budget but was present at Irwindale for a SLM race.
Misfortune never comes alone; the team saw its hauler catch fire as its owner Joe Nava told us: “Yes. Too many obstacles in the way. We are very disappointed. But it’s not over till the fat lady sings. I can still break into the top ten by Kern County or Portland. And talk about bad luck. My hauler caught fire at Irwindale Speedway tonight. Burned the generator and front lounge. Thankfully all the crews were able to keep the flames down until the fire dept arrived. We are down, but not out.”
However with 39 drivers this remains the largest entry list in the West Series since the combined West/East race in Iowa in 2015 (39 cars) or that of Sonoma in 2015 (38 cars) for a stand-alone race for the West Series.
The unique practice/qualifying session was instructive. First of all, Sammy Smith and the Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) team being above the others in pure speed. KBM using equipment from Joe Gibbs Racing who had dominated the last two races at Phoenix with Ty Gibbs. 2021 East Series champion Sammy Smith takes pole ahead of Taylor Gray. Smith is the only one to go under 27 seconds in 26.912 sec (133.769 MPH). Jesse Love (Venturini) and Nick Sanchez (Rev Racing) occupying the second row.
Jake Drew (Bruncati Racing) is the best of the regular West drivers in ninth position. Many riders experienced technical issues and either rode little or not at all like Alex Clubb and Brian Kaltreider.
The beginner Eric Rhead who had obtained the 26th time being the victim of an accident that prevented him from starting the race. “Our first lesson we learned in ARCA was a crappy one… Break issues while at high speeds does not end well… Calling it a day. Thank you to all our crew and fans! Back to the shop!” Rhead said.
The race started under a setting sun. Gray in an all-black car cut inside and takes the lead from Smith. The drivers are excited, and car contact multiplied. It doesn’t take long for the first yellow flag to wave. It won’t be the only one!
First it is Chris Lowden who made a mistake in Turn Two and is immobilized in front of the entrance to the pitlane. Lowden who will experience another mishap in his pit box by wanting to restart too quickly, as he explains to us: “Oh yeah, because just to pushy in, turns out I broke the screw jack and the locker. We’ll fix her up and head to Irwindale!” He returned to the track just to retire shortly after the first third of the race. Note that Paul Pedroncelli made a start and park as planned at the end of the first lap and he was followed the next lap by Kaltreider.
The restart like all the following ones will be wild! All the drivers cutting inside, sometimes being six or seven abreast! Finally, it was a miracle that there were no more accidents! Daniel Dye being among the most aggressive by gaining several positions.
Second caution in the 11th lap following the accident of Greg Van Alst and Amber Balcaen who hit the wall from behind in Turn 2. Zackary Tinkle received the free pass.
On the restart Gray manages to contain Smith for one lap but the latter takes command just before the yellow flag is out for the third time already in less than 20 laps. This time its Ryan Roulette who spins between Turns 3 and 4. Lowden is the free pass.
The top-10 are as follows for the restart: Smith, Gray, Sanchez, Dye, Love, Josh Berry, Connor Mosack, Rajah Caruth, Drew and Parker Chase. Once again it was Gray who was the quickest to get into action and he regained the control of the race on Turn 2. Dye passed Sanchez for third position and Derek Kraus entered the top-10.
Kyle Keller was the cause of the fourth neutralization. The deck lid of his Chevrolet No. 70 having torn off after contact with the wall. For the first time since the start of the race, Taylor Gray was not the fastest to get into action and Sammy Smith took back the first position by passing him outside on turn 2. Kraus gained a position by passing Drew for ninth position.
On the 40th lap, there are only 28 drivers left in the leader’s lap. Parker Chase broke into the top-10 on lap 45 over Drew. Bridget Burgess slowed and lost a lap against the leading duo who were fighting a fierce battle.
The first third of the race is reached and Smith only has a tenth lead over Gray who seems more comfortable in the traffic of latecomers. Ryan Roulette and Tim Spurgeon seeing the leaders pass them left and right! Parker Chase continues his ascent followed like his shadow by Drew. The two men overtook Kraus who came out of the top-10 but remained BMR’s best representative at the start of the race.
On the 60th lap with the clean air Smith manages to widen the gap on Gray. It is 0.6 seconds and will increase to 1.5 seconds on the 65th lap. Last year championship contender P.J. Pedroncelli was lapped by the leaders on lap 69. Balcaen, who spent a very long time at the start of the race in her pit, is off the pace, her Ford’s rear bumper missing.
With only one lap left before the midway break, BMR rookie Austin Herzog makes a mistake at turn 2. It is the fifth yellow flag which will also serve as a break. It’s another rookie, young Tanner Reif (Bruncati Racing), who benefits from the free pass. This yellow flag is good because the gaps between the leaders were starting to become significant. Smith had 1.6 seconds ahead of Gray then Daniel Dye another six seconds behind and the next group led by Love and Caruth at more than nine seconds!
After the regulatory five-minute red flag, the drivers rejoin the track behind the pace car. As on the first start, Rev Racing driver Caruth needed help from the tow truck to get his engine going again.
The ranking for the second segment is as follows: Smith, Gray, Dye, Love, Caruth, Sanchez, Mosack, Drew, Chase, Berry for the top-10. Kraus, Cole Moore, Todd Souza and Reif in 14th position and last driver on the lap.
Then with a lap behind there is Toni Breidinger, P.J. Pedroncelli, Joey Iest, Christian Rose, Takuma Koga and Herzog who closes the top20. Spurgeon and Tinkle follow two laps away. Sebastian Arias (-4), Alex Clubb (-4), Roulette (-5), Burgess (-8), Bryce Haugeberg (-11), DL Wilson (-12), Lowden (-21), Bobby Hillis, Jr (-22), Keller (-30), Tim Monroe (-33) and Balcaen (-38) are all still on track despite being many laps behind. Brad Smith, Andrew Tuttle, Van Alst, Paul Pedroncelli and Rhead having all stored their cars in the garage.
The restart on lap 79 saw Dye attack from third position and take the lead over Smith. Among other things, he took advantage of the contact between Love and Gray for second position. But Smith will only take two laps before regaining his favorite position, first! Gray also tries to take advantage of it but by sliding, narrowly avoiding Dye but lose a position. Balcaen is getting slower and slower on the track. She barely has the minimum average speed.
Drew into Attack mode!
Drew and his team have obviously made the right adjustments because since the restart he has been going faster and faster. Moving up in the top 10 to sixth position. Fighting with Rev Racing drivers Sanchez and Caruth. Behind the Mosack-Berry-Kraus trio complete the top-10.
By lap 100 Smith had created a 2.6 second advantage over Dye. Gray, Love, Caruth, Sanchez and Drew follow at distance. Mosack, Berry, Kraus, were joined by Souza, Moore and Reif. Breidinger, 15th, is the first one lap behind the leader.
The sixth caution comes on lap 102 when Christian Rose, then 18th, makes a mistake at the exit of turn 2. He stops in the wrong direction in the backstretch. Breidinger gets the free pass.
At the restart, Dye immediately took first position against Smith. The Rev Racing teammates fight door against door but avoid the accident. Arias is getting slower and slower due to a chronic problem with his alternator. He will lose many laps despite several passages to his pit box to try to solve the problem, in vain.
Intractable Daniel Dye!
This part of the race allows Dye to show his speed. He quickly widens a gap of more than a second on Smith and seems to be in perfect control of the situation. Parker Chase, who had been in the lead lap since the start of the race, experienced handling problems after hitting the wall and lost several laps going through his pit box. Reif and Moore offered an impressive battle for 12th position.
By lap 125 Dye was now 2.3 seconds ahead of Smith. The latter sees Gray come back once again on him thanks to the overtaking of the latecomers.
With 20 laps to go Dye is far ahead with 3.7 seconds ahead of the Smith-Gray duo. Gray who manages to pass Smith the next lap but by fighting door against door they still lost more than half a second more.
This is when D.L. Wilson showed himself to the cameras by going for a spun in Turn 2. This is the seventh yellow flag. Iest benefits from the free pass. Caruth is in form in fourth.
At the restart Dye retains first position but he no longer manages to widen the gap on Gray who follows him like his shadow. Barely Gray has managed to take the first position that Wilson again in spins this time in the Turn 4. Eighth caution and Herzog is the free pass in 16th position. Caruth passes Love and Smith and is now third.
For Steven Stotts.
Gray isn’t going to let go anymore. The emotion is palpable in the David Gilliland Racing pit box. They all have the cap adorned with the double S in memory of Steven Stotts.
Reif sandwiched Todd Souza somewhat between him and Josh Berry during the restart. Souza’s right front tire rubs on his bodywork.
Berry managed to catch up with his Chevrolet despite hitting the outside wall of the backstretch. However, Souza is unhappy and will go and push Reif when crossing the start/finish line. The rookie spun off and managed to avoid contact with the wall.
This ninth and last caution will lengthen the race by an overtime. The last restart of the evening will be one of the wildest of the race. Love and Smith make contact in the backstretch. Caruth threatens Dye for second position but gets caught by Smith cutting inside the track.
In front, Gray left no possibility of taking the first position from him. He wins the race in front of Dye, Smith, Caruth and Drew for the top-five. Souza goes in spun crossing the finish line but avoids contact with the inside wall.
The top-10 is completed by Love, Sanchez, Berry, Kraus and Mosack.
Gray wins his fourth career West Series race (the first in the National Series) in eleven starts. “This is just for Steven. I feel like he looked over me today.” said Gray.
Of the last four races at Phoenix, DGR has won two and JGR the other two. In the championship, the driver standings is the same as that of the race. For the ARCA National Series Daniel Dye is the leader ahead of Caruth and Chase.
The next race in ARCA Menards West Series on March 26 in Irwindale, CA for the NAPA Auto Parts 150.
For the ARCA Menards Series it will be April 23 in Talladega, AL for the General Tire 200.
ARCA Menards Series results: https://www.racing-reference.info/race-results/2022-02/A/
ARCA Menards Series West Results: https://www.racing-reference.info/race-results/2022-01/AW/
Featured Photo Credit: Photo by NKP / NKP Photo.