The Crosley Record Pressing 200 presented by T-Mobile at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, the third of eight ARCA Menards Series East races this season, arrived as a pivotal event for drivers in the 2021 championship chase.
It ended with all of those competitors chasing just one driver: Sammy Smith.
The 16-year-old from Johnston, Iowa, led 103 of 200 laps Saturday night en route to his win at the half-mile oval in Nashville, Tennessee. But the amount of laps Smith led does not properly reflect the dominance of his No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Smith was shown the black flag and issued a pass-through penalty after he jumped pole-sitter Mason Mingus at the start of the race. He almost immediately gained his lap back by passing the leader under green and found himself in P1 come Lap 98. He never relinquished that lead.
Smith, a rookie, has now won the last two ARCA Menards Series East races, including his triumph at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, in February.
The lasting impression of his performance at Nashville leads the takeaways from the Crosley Record Pressing 200 presented by T-Mobile.
‘Hard to compete against Joe Gibbs’
These are the words second-place finisher Mason Diaz spoke Saturday night after the race, referring specifically to his inability to keep pace with Smith after the latter took the lead just before the halfway point at Nashville.
He might as well have been referring to the entire 2021 ARCA Menards Series East season.
Smith’s win at Nashville gives him a 15-point edge over second-place Diaz in the championship standings. That might not seem like much with the majority of the season still to come.
But in the context of Smith’s dominance in the East Series thus far, it’s a significant advantage.
2 in a row feels good!🎸
So proud of my entire @EngineIce @JoeGibbsRacing team for all of their hard work this season. To have two wins in three races is a testament to this crew and their skill. Let’s keep going!🏁@ToyotaRacing | #TeamToyota | @RaceFairgrounds pic.twitter.com/HKQaJcf0Mm
— Sammy Smith (@sammysmithSS) May 9, 2021
Smith has led 326 laps through three East races in 2021. That’s more than half of the 587 laps the series has contested. His average finish is 1.3.
And had Max Gutiérrez not stolen the victory in the final corner at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in the season-opener in February, there’s a good chance Smith would have won all three events to begin the season.
“When we got the black flag, I knew we were going to be fine,” said Smith of the penalty that cost him a lap in the early stages at Nashville. “And we were. So I felt like I learned a lot tonight about the car, and what changes we made.
“Hopefully we can go do this next week again at Dover.”
If a black flag can’t stop this team from dominating the ARCA Menards Series East in 2021, who or what will?
Mason Diaz is ‘going to get a win’
Diaz ranking second in the East Series standings after the Nashville race, with a seven-point cushion over third-place Gutiérrez, is no fluke.
It’s a reflection of the speed Diaz and Visconti Motorsports bring to the track for each event.
The 20-year-old Diaz has the second best average finish in the series at 2.7 through three races. That includes consecutive runner-up finishes to Smith at 5 Flags and Nashville.
And for this team, those strong runs mean everything.
“We’re a big family,” said Visconti Motorsports co-owner John Visconti after Saturday night’s race. “We’re a small team, as most people know. And it means that much more to us to run against the GMS teams, and the DGR teams, and the Gibbs teams, and we’re very competitive.
“It’s very emotional for us, because we work so hard. We’ve got all of, what, four or five guys that help us out; it’s not even any full-time guys. And they dig real deep, and it shows on the track. (Diaz) wheels the car like a veteran. We’re going to get a win. We’re going to get that win.”
Added Diaz: “It just shows what this team is able to do. … For our small team, and what we put into it, to come out here and finish second (ahead of) all these other teams, that means the world to our team.”
Diaz is one of three drivers (Smith and Joey Iest) who have top-five finishes in all three races this season. He is one of six drivers who have a top 10 in each, as well.
Diaz led 41 laps Saturday at Nashville, and not because he simply found himself in the right place at the right time. He tracked down the leader, then Mingus, and made a clean pass for the lead on Lap 57.
That’s a sign Diaz and the No. 74 Solid Rock Carriers Toyota indeed will end up in Victory Lane soon.
Jostling in standings
Behind Smith and Diaz in the ARCA Menards Series East championship standings are five drivers separated by just nine points.
And each has reason to believe he can climb atop the muddled middle of the standings by season’s end.
Gutiérrez ranks third on the strength of his win at New Smyrna. He has completed all but one of the 587 possible laps this season.
Fourth-place Iest has finished fifth in all three races this season, making him one of three drivers with top-five finishes in every event.
Rajah Caruth, the fifth-place driver, has put together consecutive top 10s after an early incident took him out of contention in the opener at New Smyrna.
Parker Retzlaff ranks sixth in points on the strength of his three top-10 finishes. He led 55 laps at New Smyrna.
In seventh is Daniel Dye, who also has three top 10s and has led a pair of laps this season.
All of these drivers have shown speed at various points through three races, and all were competitive again at Nashville on Saturday night. They finished fifth through ninth; Iest, Caruth, Retzlaff, Dye and Gutiérrez.
Expect the jostling between these drivers in the standings to continue as the season progresses.
A perfect Saturday night + @RaceFairgrounds = 😍
— ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) May 10, 2021
- Smith became the first driver to follow his first career win with a victory in the series’ next race since Scott Heckert won back-to-back events at Watkins Glen International and Virginia International Raceway in 2014.
- Conner Jones finished fourth at Nashville in his ARCA Menards Series East debut driving for GMS Racing.
- Carson Kvapil started from the pole and led all 100 laps of the Super Late Model feature just before the Crosley Record Pressing 200. Kvapil finished 11th in the East race; his engine failed after just 16 laps. Smith also raced in the Super Late Model show and finished fifth.
- Stephanie Moyer finished 10th in her second East Series start Saturday at Nashville, giving her a top 10 in each of her first two races (eighth at 5 Flags). She is driving for team owner Michelle Hillenburg, the wife of 1995 ARCA Menards Series champion Andy Hillenburg. Moyer’s effort is supported by Evergreen Raceway in Drums, Pennsylvania, where she is the defending Factory Stock division champion. She tested at Daytona in February and is scheduled to test at Pocono in June while competing in select ARCA Menards Series platform races this year.
- Caruth was voted the Reese’s Sweet Move of the Race award winner from Nashville after he avoided a spinning Dye late in Saturday’s race.
- Away from Nashville, Ryan Unzicker and team owner Bill Hendren over the weekend announced their intentions to race both of the ARCA Menards Series’ dirt track events (Springfield and DuQuoin) later this year. Unzicker recently won the Thaw Brawl at Lasalle Speedway in Illinois to start his season. The duo earned its first ARCA Menards Series win last year at Springfield.
- ARCA Menards Series championship points leader Corey Heim made his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports at Darlington Raceway on Friday night. Heim ran up front all night and led two laps before getting involved in a multi-truck crash on a late restart. He finished 23rd in a race won by 2018 ARCA Menards Series champion and defending Truck Series champ Sheldon Creed.
- Ty Gibbs, currently second in ARCA Menards Series standings, finished 17th in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Darlington. Gibbs has three top-five finishes in the Xfinity Series in his four starts, including a win in his debut on the road course at Daytona International Speedway. He has two wins in the ARCA Menards Series this season (Phoenix and Kansas).