On the surface, Sam Mayer’s fifth win in six ARCA Menards Series East races suggests the 2020 champion likely had an easy going in the season finale at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. After all, the 17-year-old from Franklin, Wisconsin, predicted his own victory.
But the No. 21 End Stigma/Change Lives Chevrolet landing in Victory Lane was far from an inevitability throughout Sunday’s Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions.
And, yet another sign of Mayer’s remarkable confidence, that’s exactly how he likes it.
"That was a nutty race," said Mayer. "I said on Twitter about three days ago that it’s going to be a five-car battle for the win. And it turned out to be like a four-, five-car battle for the win.
"All these drivers that came out this weekend are really good here and really good at driving these race cars. I can’t thank them enough for making me a better race car driver, having to push me harder so I can come out with a win."
Most notably, Mayer had to overcome challenges from 2015 ARCA Menards Series champion Grant Enfinger and 2020 ARCA Menards Series East Bounty Rookie of the Year Ty Gibbs.
Racing (and winning) on two wheels
Enfinger (175 laps) and Mayer (31 laps) were the only drivers who led Sunday’s East finale at the half-mile oval in Pensacola. They exchanged the top spot five times, and the last pair of lead changes defined the race.
Soon after Mayer had muscled the lead from Enfinger with 54 laps to go, the 35-year-old driver of the No. 77 Champion Power/Breland Homes Ford got back to Mayer and, as most would at a place like 5 Flags, used his bumper to make a move.
"All I know is I had my rear tires up about 10 feet up in the air because he hit me so hard," said Mayer when asked about Enfinger’s pass. "We were able to come back from it. I mean, we got shuffled back to like fifth or sixth, so we were able to come back and actually win the thing.
"It was a heck of a race. I’m glad Grant could come out and make it a show because he sure knows what he’s doing here and in a race car in general. Can’t thank him enough for coming out and making me work for it."
By "work for it," of course, Mayer means return the favor.
Mayer charged his way to second and, with 13 laps to go, stole the lead back from Enfinger the same way Enfinger had taken it from him.
"Mayyyybe," said Mayer with a smile when asked whether he considered his move on Enfinger a bit of revenge. "Race car drivers have a long memory. I just made it short and sweet within the same race."
Mayer and Enfinger are familiar with each other thanks to their time on the NASCAR Gander Outdoors & RV Truck Series circuit. Mayer has run seven Truck Series races over the last two seasons on a part-time basis. Enfinger is a Truck playoff driver in 2020 who was spending his off weekend from that series making his first ARCA Menards Series East start.
"I mean, these last couple years we’ve been using each other up — it was all fair game," said Mayer. "I did it to him (in the Truck Series race) at Martinsville (in 2019). He gave me room and I gave him room back, and it was fun racing. It’s no bad blood on my end, at least."
Mayer’s move on Enfinger late in Sunday’s race was not his winning moment. The now two-time East champion had to hold off multiple charges from Gibbs on a green-white-checkered after a caution with two laps to go ruined what would have been a smooth victory.
– ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) October 11, 2020
"I was pretty much locking up the brakes trying to keep it on the bottom," said Mayer. "But like with Grant, my tires were pretty much off the ground, so can’t do much there. (Gibbs) pushed me up the track, and I just got the drive off on the top.
"It was really weird, like the restarts you could kind of hang in there on the top if you had tire, able to drive up and clear yourself into the next corner. So it was definitely an interesting race track today, but I’m glad it worked out like that because it got me a win."
The was no easy victory for the driver who dominated most of the 2020 ARCA Menards Series East season. Yet it was the perfect exclamation point.
Mayer clinched the ARCA Menards East championship when he rolled from the grid for Sunday’s Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions. Mayer won for the fifth time in six East starts this season, with his only non-win being a second-place result at Toledo Speedway in June. Mayer ended the East season with an average finish of 1.2.
Mayer won the 2020 Sioux Chief Showdown championship in addition to last season’s East title under the NASCAR banner, which means he has now won all three championships for which he has contended at this level.
"That’s a crazy stat," said Mayer. "Because we’ve only run for three championships, and we got them all. That’s pretty crazy that GMS (Racing) is just that good that they can kind of carry me almost getting all of these championships. Because I wouldn’t be anywhere without them and the driver development program at Team Chevy. Can’t thank them enough for the opportunities I’ve had to come out and run for these championships in the first place.
"Getting two championships in one year, I never thought I would have done that, especially going into New Smyrna this year. I expected to win at least one of them, but both of them, and locking them up pretty much going into the last race, is just huge for me."
Mayer also locked up the Valvoline Lap Leader Award at 5 Flags with a total of 385 laps led on the season.
Gibbs was locked into second in the final East championship standings when Sunday’s race took the green flag, but that didn’t stop him from trying everything he could to knock Mayer out of victory lane.
Crew chief Mark McFarland and the No. 18 team made significant changes to the rear suspension on both of the scheduled race breaks, and Gibbs gave Mayer a shot in the rear bumper on each of the final two laps in overtime before getting muscled out of second by Corey Heim in the final corner.
Some issues for @TyGibbs_ during the second caution of the race
– ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) October 11, 2020
Nick Sanchez fought an ill-handling car to finish ninth, enough to hold onto third in the final East standings. Behind him, five of the remaining seven positions in the top 10 changed.
Parker Retzlaff moved up one spot to fourth, while Mason Diaz — who crashed twice in the final 25 laps Sunday — dropped back to fifth. Justin Carroll moved up a spot to sixth, while Chase Cabre dropped from sixth to seventh.
Taylor Gray, who missed the opening race of the season because he had not yet turned 15, moved into the eighth, displacing Max McLaughlin, who missed the race at 5 Flags because he was racing (and winning) in a big block Modified in the northeast.
- Enfinger made his first career ARCA Menards Series East start and led 175 laps from the General Tire Pole before settling for fifth at the finish. Enfinger is a former weekly competitor at 5 Flags Speedway and is currently fourth in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series playoff standings.
- Heim earned his best ARCA Menards finish when he crossed the line second. He has a pair of third-place finishes in the ARCA Menards Series, both in 2019.
- Dave Mader III, the 1978 Snowball Derby winner at 5 Flags, finished 11th.
- Max Gutierrez made his second ARCA Menards Series East start and finished a career-best 12th.