By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
The ARCA Menards Series East heads to Pensacola, Florida for the Pensacola 200 presented by INSPECTRA Thermal Solutions.
The last time East Series raced at New Smyrna, just a few weeks ago, Max Gutierrez earned the victory edging Sammy Smith and Taylor Gray. Gutierrez now heads into Pensacola with a 3-point lead over Sammy Smith and Taylor Gray.
Saturday’s race will be the eighth ARCA Menards Series event at Five Flags Speedway (second ARCA Menards Series East event). Before 2020, the main ARCA Menards Series raced at the track six times.
The ARCA Menards Series East made their debut during the 2020bpandemic where Five Flags became the season finale after being pushed. There have been seven different winners with Sam Mayer being the most recent. Mayer held off Corey Heim to earn the victory and officially earn the ARCA Menards Series East championship.
BREAKING IT DOWN:
As noted, Gutierrez enters this race with the points lead after his first career victory at New Smyrna. In last season’s race at Five Flags, one of his two ARCA East events from last season, where he finished 12th. The season-opening race winner will look to be the first driver since 2018 to go back-to-back to start a season. The last driver to do that was Todd Gilliland, winning New Smyrna and Bristol. He could also become just the third driver since 2010 to go back-to-back to kick off the season. Daniel Suarez did so in 2014.
Smith is only slated to run five of the seven races this season but after dominating at New Smyrna and sitting second in ARCA Menards Series East points, it may force Joe Gibbs Racing to field a second car in the combination races to end the season. Smith may lean on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs as Smith has no starts at Five Flags Speedway. In last season’s event at Five Flags, Gibbs finished third and was a runner-up in 2019. The bulk of Smith’s experience comes on short tracks, which will help him this weekend as he looks to take the points lead as the series heads to Nashville.
Gray led 43-laps at New Smyrna but finished in third. Entering Pensacola, he sits third in points, four points behind Gutierrez. He has one career start at Pensacola coming in last season’s finale. He finished the race in a solid fourth and will look to use his experience to his advantage as he looks to earn his first career East Series victory.
Mason Diaz had a quiet New Smyrna race finishing fourth behind the melee that was the final lap at New Smyrna. With Venturini Motorsports last season, Diaz finished 14th at Pensacola due to an accident late in the race. Diaz was sitting in the fifth position when Derek Griffith lost it battling for the lead. Diaz had nowhere to go and he ultimately hit the No. 22 of Griffith ending his day with 43 laps to go. Diaz has a lot left on the table from that Pensacola debut.
Joey Iest will make his second East start with David Gilliland Racing sitting in fifth in ARCA Menards Series standings after finishing fifth at New Smyrna. Iest qualified an impressive third in his East debut last time out and had a solid quiet night finishing fifth. The California native will lean on his David Gilliland Racing teammate Gray for help this weekend as he’s never raced at Pensacola before in ARCA.
Daniel Dye put on a strong showing in the season opener at New Smyrna earning his second career top-10 finish. The DeLand, Florida native has a good bit of experience at Pensacola finishing seventh in the season finale last season. He also competed in this season’s Snowball Derby finishing 14th among some of the best in the country including last season’s NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott.
Before having some technical issues, Parker Retzlaff had a career night going leading his first 55 laps of his East Series career. Retzlaff would be relegated to a ninth-place finish that was in no way a reflection of how the team should’ve finished. Last season at Pensacola, Retzlaff finished 10th capping off a strong season of top-10 finishes and put a cap on a fourth-place finish in the points, he sits ninth-headed into round two of the season.
Rajah Caruth had a rough go in his ARCA Menards Series debut picking up some nose damage from the start of the race. Caruth had to make two unscheduled stops early to make sure that the car wasn’t going to overheat. During qualifying, Caruth said just totally underdrove this car for qualifying and stated that was a reason why they were starting so far back and got involved in other drivers’ mistakes.
Ignition issues plagued the No. 41 Cook-Finley Racing Chevrolet SS at New Smyrna but Carson Kvapil will return this weekend looking to rebound. Kvapil finished the season-opening race from New Smyrna in 14th after starting 10th. He currently sits 14th in ARCA Menards Series East standings, it has not been confirmed that Kvapil will run the full slate of the 2021 season.
The Pensacola 200 presented by INSPECTRA Thermal Solutions will go live on the NBC Sports Gold – Track Pass at 6 p.m. ET. There will be a tape-delayed version of the race shown on NBCSN at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 4th, 2021. Tickets for the Pensacola 200 presented by INSPECTRA Thermal Solutions are available by calling 850-944-8400. Tickets for the race start at $25 for general admission.