By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
Max Gutierrez snuck by Sammy Smith and Taylor Gray to earn his first career victory in the ARCA Menards Series East. In just his third career East start, Gutierrez won by the slim margin of just .46-seconds over Smith.v
“The last corner, they were battling for first,” Gutiérrez said after the race of his move to steal the win from Gray and Smith.
“I saw an opportunity, and I took it,” said Gutiérrez, on attempting to pass the Gray and Smith in Turn 4. “I’m very happy, very proud of the team. That’s a great, great win to start the championship.”
Gray earned the pole and led the field to green as the first racing event of the 2021 season began. Gray and others fired off except for Gutierrez, who seemingly missed a shift that bundled up the field on the front stretch. Gray led the way as Parker Retzlaff and Jack Wood battled for the second position.
Retzlaff took over the second position and passed Gray for the lead – the first laps he led of his ARCA East career. Daniel Dye took advantage of the early carnage to threaten for a podium run after starting eighth. During the battle for third between Dye and Wood, Gray reeled in Retzlaff and took the lead back at lap 66.
Sammy Smith moved his way upfront right before the halfway point of the race. Smith watched as the David Gilliland Racing teammates Gray and Joey Iest battle for the lead as the caution flag waved, signaling the halfway point in the event.
Smith would lead the field back to green to kick off the final half of the race. The sole incident of the race happened when Wood backed it into the wall after making contact with Dye resulting in a cut tire with 47 laps to go.
The No. 18 of Smith rocketed away again on the restart, taking a commanding lead with no challengers. The caution was displayed for debris in turns three and four with 11 laps remaining. During the caution period, the rain began to fall which put a hold on the racing action with just four laps remaining in the race.
As the track was dried, the drivers began turning laps under caution. Smith was penalized for a pit road infraction, 80 laps after the fact, pushing him to the fourth position on the final restart with two laps to go. Gray and Diaz restarted the race on the front row. Diaz, on the outside lane, spun and hit the outside wall putting out the caution again with the field failing to turn another lap. He would remain on the lead lap and restart in seventh.
Gray secured the lead on the restart, but Smith stalked Gray as the white flag was displayed. The No. 18 got the bumper to the leader of Gray and attempted to push him out of the way, but it would open the door wide open for the No. 30 of Max Gutierrez as the driver who stole the victory, his first career ARCA Menards Series East win.
Smith finished second; Gray was relegated to a third-place spot. Diaz rebounded from a late spin to finish the race in fourth and Joey Iest rounded out the top-five.
The ARCA Menards Series East returns for round two on February 27 at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Flordia. The race will be broadcasted live on the NBC Sports Gold – Track pass package starting at 6 p.m. ET. It will be shown delayed on NBCSN at a later date.
Photo: Adam Glanzman/NASCAR/ARCA Racing