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Sammy Smith and Mason Diaz
Sammy Smith, driver of the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota, and Mason Diaz, driver of the No. 74 Solid Rock Carriers - Prince Williams Marina Toyota, chat before the Pensacola 200 Presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions for the ARCA Menards Series East at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Morgan Givens/ARCA Racing)

NOTEBOOK: Will Nashville Experience Give Sammy Smith A Boost?

Sammy Smith likely does not need extra time in a driver’s seat racing at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in order to put himself in a position to win Saturday night’s Crosley Record Pressing 200 presented by T-Mobile.

Yet that’s what the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East points leader will get before he rolls off for the third race of the season.

PIT BOX: Nashville a pivotal East Series race

Smith, the 16-year-old East Series rookie who picked up his first win in February at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, is pulling double-duty Saturday at the half-mile oval in Nashville, Tennessee. He will race the No. 22 TMC Transportation Camry for Wilson Motorsports in the North/South Super Late Model Challenge 100 before he straps into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota for the East Series race starting at 9:30 p.m. ET (TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.)

And based on how Smith performed in his first two ARCA Menards Series East starts a couple months ago, his busy evening in Nashville could end on a celebratory note.

Through two races this season, Smith has led a series-high 223 laps — 78 of 187 at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway and 145 of 200 at 5 Flags. He likely would have won both races had Max Gutiérrez not stolen the victory on the last corner at New Smyrna.

Combine Smith’s proven speed this season with the fact that he is one of just a handful of drivers in Saturday’s field who have on-track experience at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, and he can be considered a strong favorite to end up in Victory Lane.

What is now the ARCA Menards Series East has not raced at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway since 2008, so nobody entered in the Crosley Record Pressing 200 has driven an East Series car on this particular track.

Smith, though, raced at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway last year in the CARS Super Late Model Tour for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Including Saturday’s Late Model race, the East race at the speedy half-mile will be Smith’s third start at the track across three series.

Of course, Smith is not the only driver entering Saturday’s ARCA Menards Series East race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway with experience at the track in a different series.

Like Smith, Daniel Dye and Carson Kvapil competed in last year’s All American 400 at the track. Local driver Mason Mingus, the winner of the 2019 All American 400, races regularly at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in the Pro Late Model division. He, too, will compete in both races Saturday.


Rajah Caruth’s momentum

Rajah Caruth
Rajah Caruth, driver of the No. 6 UTI-NTI-Max Siegel Inc. Toyota, helps his team push his car to the grid for the Pensacola 200 Presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions for the ARCA Menards Series East at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Morgan Givens/ARCA Racing)

After a first-lap incident ruined his night in the ARCA Menards Series East season-opener at New Smyrna, Rajah Caruth’s fourth-place run at 5 Flags was an indicator of both the No. 6 UTI / NTI Chevrolet’s speed and the driver’s talent.

Now the 18-year-old rookie has another Late Model win on his resume entering Nashville to further boost his confidence.

Caruth, who this season is racing in both the ARCA Menards Series East and the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series for Rev Racing as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development program, won his third Late Model race of the season last weekend at Tri-County Motor Speedway in Granite Falls, North Carolina.

Caruth ranks eighth in ARCA Menards Series East points after two of eight races. He is one of the drivers who, with another strong finish Saturday night at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, could propel himself to the top five.

Conner Jones’ debut

The No. 21 Jones Utilities Chevrolet for GMS Racing, the car in which Sam Mayer won five of six East Series races last season en route to his second consecutive championship, will be driven at Nashville by a first-timer.

Conner Jones will take a break from running in the CARS Late Model Stock Tour to make his ARCA Menards debut Saturday night.

Jones told Speed Sport the one-off deal with GMS Racing came together quickly within the last couple weeks.

“It’s definitely going to be the biggest stage I’ve been on,” he said of the Crosley Record Pressing 200. “Before this, probably the biggest stage I’ve raced on is the New Smyrna World Series in the pro late models, but it’s exciting to have this chance, and I’m thankful to GMS, my dad and all the guys that helped me get ready for this.”

Jones will race in the CARS Tour at North Carolina’s Ace Speedway on Friday night before heading to Nashville for Saturday night’s race. Having never competed at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, he has been watching videos of past races at the track and practicing on iRacing to prepare.

And that lack of experience is not impacting his high expectations for his ARCA Menards debut. After all, he knows he will be driving for a championship team.

“I really believe a top three, I’d say, would be a good day for me,” said Jones. “I’d be happy with that, and I know this team has the equipment to race for a win. Realistically, I’d be happy with a top three.”

Championship chasers

The driver who ranks second in ARCA Menards Series East points behind Smith, Taylor Gray, will not race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway as he continues to recover from injuries sustained in a street car accident.

But, including the aforementioned Caruth, the drivers who rank third through eighth in the standings are all within 20 points of Smith and looking to use Saturday night’s pivotal race as a springboard in the title hunt.

Max Gutierrez
Max Gutiérrez, driver of the No. 30 TOUGHBUILT Ford, celebrates winning the Jeep Beach 175 for the ARCA Menards Series East at New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, on Feb. 8, 2021. (Adam Glanzman/NASCAR)

Gutiérrez, who won the opener at New Smyrna in epic fashion, sits third in points and looks to contend for another victory — after he gets used to another new track, that is.

“Practice is super important for our No. 30 TOUGHBUILT Ford team this year, including this weekend at Nashville,” said Gutiérrez. “With every lap turned it puts me and our team in a much better position for the race. It’s all about getting comfortable during practice, and from there it’s putting up another good lap in qualifying and being at the right place at the right time when it comes to the checked flag.”

Mason Diaz, who ranks fourth in points, is one of four drivers who have top-five finishes in both races thus far this season. And only Smith (1.5) has a better average finish than Diaz (3).

The fifth-place driver in points, Joey Iest, is another (along with Smith and Gray) who has top fives in both East Series races this year. He, too, has never raced at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

“I’ve turned some laps at Nashville on iRacing,” said Iest. “And my guess is that it will be a tough track where you have to save your stuff for the end of a run.”

Dye (sixth in points) will lean on his experience racing Late Models at Nashville. The driver behind him in the standings, Parker Retzlaff, can’t lean on experience. Which does not impact his confidence.

“The sky is the limit for us at Nashville this week,” said Retzlaff. “We can win. This team is good enough to win. But, if the opportunity is not good enough to win, we’ll think big picture and focus on points and look ahead to Dover next weekend.”

And more:

  • Mingus, who finished second in the 2013 ARCA Menards Series championship standings and won the 2019 All American 400 Late Model race at Nashville, will make his first East Series start driving for Jeff McClure. He’ll run both races Saturday night. “I was already looking forward to racing with the Pro Late Model drivers, and this kind of late deal we put together to race in the ARCA East race is really exciting to me,” he said. “With my job, I have to work racing in whenever I can, so to get to drive in two events on the same day is going to be a lot of fun, especially knowing that we have cars in both events that are capable of winning.”
  • Stephanie Moyer, who made her ARCA Menards debut the last time the East Series was on track at 5 Flags, will race again at Nashville for Andy Hillenburg’s Fast Track Racing team.
  • ARCA Menards racing veterans Dick Doheny, Brad Smith and Wayne Peterson will run Saturday’s race at Nashville.
  • The Crosley Record Pressing 200 will be the 574th race in East Series history.