By Chistian Koelle, Staff Writer
The ARCA Menards Series East returns to action on February 8 for the Jeep Beach 175 at New Smyrna Speedway, kicking off the 2021 NASCAR season.
Monday’s race will be the eighth East Series race at New Smyrna (second ARCA Menards Series East event). Sam Mayer picked up the victory last season by holding off then-rookie Derek Griffith. Mayer will not return to defend his championship nor the victory at New Smyrna.
In Mayer’s place, Jack Wood, of Loomis, Calo., will run the full East Series season. Wood has 14 starts in the ARCA Menards Series West with the career-best finish of fifth last season at Colorado National Speedway. In those 14 starts, Wood has one top-five and eight top-10 finishes. Mayer will have ARCA veteran Chad Bryant on the box for him starting at New Smyrna.
After making some major splashes last year, Taylor Gray, driving for David Gilliland Racing. will go toe-to-toe with Wood for the ARCA Menards Series East championship as Gray will run the full East Series season also.
Gray ran five of the six races last season picking up two top-five and five top-10 finishes. He earned his career-best finish of fourth in Pensacola. Gray did pick up his first career victory last season in the West Series at Kern County Raceway so he will for sure be a threat for the East title.
Mason Diaz moves from Venturini Motorsports to Visconti Motorsports in 2021. Last season, Diaz finished fifth in points tallying two top-five and three top-10 finishes. His career-best finish came at Dover where he finished third. Diaz finished 17th in last season’s opener at New Smyrna.
One of the final announced full-time entries will be Daniel Dye and Ben Kennedy Racing. In two East Series starts, Dye has the best finish of seventh last season in Pensacola. Dye finished 19th in the season-opening race at New Smyrna last season and will look to challenge for his first NASCAR championship. It’s a home game for Dye as he’s native to DeLand, Flordia, just 15-miles from New Smyrna Speedway.
As noted previously, Willie Mullins will run the ARCA Menards Series East race before heading north to run in the Lucas Oil 200 presented by General Tire at Daytona. Mullins finished 23rd last season at New Smyrna in his East Series debut and has 19 starts to his name in the ARCA Menards Series. Mullins has not raced in the ARCA Menards Series since Kentucky last season so the East start will more than likely serve as a race to knock off the rust.
Carson Kvapil, the son of 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Travis Kvapil, will make his debut driving for Bruce Cook and will serve as a teammate to Parker Retzlaff. Kvapil has 10 starts in the CARS Super Late Model Tour with four top-five and eight top-10 finishes. As for Retzlaff, he has six starts in the East Series will five of the six starts resulting in top-five finishes. He earned a top-five finish at Gateway in 2019 finishing fifth which is still his career-best finish.
Rajah Caruth will make his debut replacing Nick Sanchez, who is being called up to the ARCA Menards Series. Caruth is an alumnus of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program. In 2020, Caruth raced late models and legends earning one victory in late models at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. Caruth was running a late model with Rev Racing, the organization he’ll run with in New Smyrna.
Sammy Smith will run the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing after Ty Gibbs moved up to full-time in the ARCA Menards Series. Smith ran eight races in the CARS Super Late Model Tour last season tallying three top-five and six top-10 finishes and one pole. Smith raced with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Winchester 400 last year finishing sixth. The short track star will surely be a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel of the No. 18 Toyota that Gibbs took to victory lane once last season at Toledo.
Brandon Oakley will make his return to the East Series for the first time since 2019. Oakley has 19 career starts in the ARCA Menards Series East with one career top-10 finish at New Hampshire in 2017. Oakley will be running for his family-owned team with former KBR Development crew chief Mike Bursley. Bursley has 13 starts as a crew chief in the ARCA Menards Series with four top-fives and nine top-10 finishes.
The Jeep Beach 175 at New Smyrna Speedway goes green at at 7:40 p.m./ET and will be shown live on NBC Sports Gold – Trackpass. To kick off the season, fans will be allowed to attend the event with tickets available here.
Photo: Matt Stamey/ARCA Racing