ARCA Menards Rewind: What We Learned At 5 Flags

The second race of the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East season played out in a way that was similar to the first, minus the shocking, final-corner pass for the lead by Max Gutiérrez to steal the win from both Sammy Smith and Taylor Gray.

Smith and Gray again were the class of the East Series field Saturday in the Pensacola 200 Presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

In the end, a mistake on a late restart cost Gray his chance to battle Smith for the race win, and the 16-year-old rookie from Johnston, Iowa, cruised to victory with relative ease in just his second series start.

Smith started the race on the General Tire Pole and led 145 of the 200 laps. But there were points throughout Saturday’s race when the 15-year-old Gray, not Smith, appeared to be the driver to beat at 5 Flags.

Which was the case in the season-opener at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, too, before Gutiérrez muscled his way to the win on the last lap. So make that two races in which Gray and Smith had the cars to beat.

A series trend — and, in turn, a rivalry — appears to be developing.

Pensacola 200: Race Recap | Highlights | Photo Gallery

A budding rivalry

Gray after Saturday’s Pensacola 200 was asked a simple, common question: What will you take from this race that you’ll carry into the future?

“I guess just remembering things that (Smith’s) No. 18 does,” a frustrated Gray replied. “I guess we’ve got a little rivalry going on, so that’s cool. We’ll see.”

This is what happens when a pair of drivers make up five of the six lead changes that occur in a 100-mile race.

We’re including the start of Saturday’s event, when Gray immediately jumped out to an advantage on the pole-sitter to lead Lap 1.

Smith, though, collected himself and quickly caught Gray, passing him for the lead on Lap 7.

A little more than 60 laps later, Gray returned the favor and passed Smith for the lead.

Gray held the point until Daniel Dye’s two-lap run in P1 after a caution, and he took it back on Lap 80.

On Lap 115, Smith made a move on Gray that was nominated for the Reese’s Sweet Move of the Race. He bumped the No. 17 car entering the backstretch and got position entering Turn 3 to make the pass.

This would be the final lead change of the race.

Together, Smith and Gray led 198 of the 200 laps Saturday at 5 Flags. This after the same duo led 121 of the 175 laps at New Smyrna in the opener.

Parker Retzlaff (55 at New Smyrna) Mason Diaz (10 at New Smyrna), Dye (two at 5 Flags) and of course Gutiérrez (final lap at New Smyrna) are the only other drivers who have led laps through the first two races of the season.

SMITH: 5 Flags Makes Up for New Smyrna

With Smith in the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Gray in the No. 17 Ford Performance Ford for David Gilliland Racing this year in the ARCA Menards Series East, both figure to be factors in each of the six races left on the schedule.

And there’s a chance the back-and-fourth battle we saw at 5 Flags will rage all the way through the series finale at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 16.

Rajah Caruth’s speed

His No. 6 UTI / NTI Chevrolet may not have had enough strength to contend with Smith, Diaz and Gray for the race win at 5 Flags, but Rajah Caruth’s drive Saturday was as impressive as anybody’s.

In just his second series start driving for Rev Racing as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program Class of 2021, the 18-year-old from Washington, D.C., finished fourth in Pensacola. He did so after qualifying third.

This was the prominent iRacer’s first real chance to contend in an ARCA Menards race, as an early incident prematurely ended his chance to compete in the season-opener at New Smyrna. And he quickly proved his talent.

Battling a loose race car throughout the event, Caruth worked his way up to second with 45 laps to go after his muscled by Gray on a restart.

Caruth won his race-long fight with his car, as evidenced by the fact that one of his saves coming off Turn 4 was nominated for and voted the Reese’s Sweet Move of the Race.

“For a good majority of yesterday, everyone could see my door numbers off of 4,” Caruth tweeted Sunday with four crying laughing emojis.

Coupled with his 11th-place run at New Smyrna, Caruth’s fourth place at 5 Flags leaves him eighth in the ARCA Menards Series East standings after two of eight races.

More importantly, he proved in Pensacola he will be a factor for race wins throughout his rookie season at this level of stock car racing.

Getting closer

Diaz didn’t have the late-race speed to keep up with Smith after the latter got away on a restart with 14 laps to go. But the driver of the No. 74 Solid Rock Carriers Toyota for Visconti Motorsports has shown competitive speed in both of the East Series races thus far this season.

His second-place finish at 5 Flags marked a new career high. It was the best result for Visconti Motorsports since Brandon McReynods won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and backed it up with a second-place finish at Dover International Speedway in consecutive races in 2018.

Likewise, Dye proved in Pensacola his ability to contend in the No. 43 Race to Stop Suicide Chevrolet for Ben Kennedy Racing this season. He led his first pair of laps in the series. And he was among the fastest on the track before contact with a lapped car poked a hole in his radiator and ended his night.

That brief taste of P1, though, could go a long way.

Diaz and Dye are fourth and sixth in points, respectively, after two races. The drivers in fifth (Joey Iest) and seventh (Parker Retzlaff) also have shown glimpses of race-winning speed.

If these drivers keep trending in the right direction, one or more will find Victory Lane by the end of the season.

Notes

  • Combined with Gutiérrez’s win at New Smyrna, Smith’s victory at 5 Flags marks the first time since 2016 (Todd Gilliland and Tyler Dippel) the East Series season has started with consecutive first-time winners.
  • Despite a pair of incidents, Stephanie Moyer finished eighth in her ARCA Menards debut. This after her stated goal was to finish in the top 10. Her Fast Track High Performance Racing teammate Richard Garvie finished a career-best 10th.
  • Smith, Diaz, Gray and Iest all have top-five finishes in both races that have been contested thus far in 2021.
  • Smith, Diaz, Gray, Iest, Retzlaff, Gutiérrez and Dye all have top-10 finishes in both races that have been contested thus far in 2021.
  • Smith leads the seasonlong Valvoline Lap Leader Award standings with 223 laps led over Gray with 96, Retzlaff with 55, Diaz with 10, Dye with 2 and Gutierrez with 1.
  • Five drivers have completed all 387 possible laps this far in 2021: Gutierrez, Smith, Gray, Diaz and Iest.