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Sammy Smith and Mason Diaz race during the Southern National 200 for the ARCA Menards Series East at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina, on June 12, 2021. (Veasey Conway/ARCA Racing)

ARCA Menards rewind: What we learned at Southern National

Saturday’s Southern National 200 presented by Solid Rock Carriers at Southern National Motorsports Park arrived as a pivotal event on the ARCA Menards Series East schedule.

Chances are, the results of the 200-lap race on the 0.4-mile paved oval will go a long way in determining the series’ 2021 champion.

The Southern National 200 was the fifth of eight East Series races on this year’s slate, marking the beginning of the second half of the season. Saturday’s event also marked the last standalone East Series race of the year, as the last three (Iowa Speedway, the Milwaukee Mile, Bristol Motor Speedway) are combination events with the ARCA Menards Series.

That means the Southern National race was the last chance for East Series title contenders to push for a victory without additional competition from ARCA Menards Series drivers like Ty Gibbs, who led every lap of the East race at Dover International Speedway last month.

And it was Gibbs’ teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing who took advantage of that opportunity.

His resounding triumph leads our takeaways from Southern National.

SOUTHERN NATIONAL: Race Recap | Highlights | Photos

Sammy Smith, driver of the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota, is seen during practice for the Southern National 200, part of the ARCA Menards Series East, at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina on June 12, 2021. (Veasey Conway/ARCA Racing)
Sammy Smith, driver of the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota, sits in his car during a race break amid the Southern National 200, part of the ARCA Menards Series East, at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina, on June 12, 2021. (Veasey Conway/ARCA Racing)

East Series is Sammy Smith’s to lose

Sammy Smith entered the Southern National race with a comfortable, 22-point lead in the ARCA Menards Series East championship standings. There were multiple moments Saturday when the 17-year-old seemed on the verge of losing some of that cushion.

Smith qualified sixth at Southern National, his worst starting position since the season-opener at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway. Meanwhile, Mason Diaz, who both entered and left Southern National second in points, earned his first General Tire Pole Award.

Diaz proceeded to lead almost all of the first 132 laps of the race at his home track. Smith had worked his way to second, but Diaz’s ability to hold the point was an impressive display of speed — both in terms of Saturday’s race and in terms of the broader title hunt.

Pit crew members work on Sammy Smithís No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota during the Southern National 200, part of the ARCA Menards Series East, at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina on June 12, 2021. (Veasey Conway/ARCA Racing)
Crew members work on Sammy Smith’s No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota during the Southern National 200, part of the ARCA Menards Series East, at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina, on June 12, 2021. (Veasey Conway/ARCA Racing)

Then Smith’s team made an adjustment on the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota during the second of two scheduled race breaks, and everything changed.

“We swung pretty big at it there,” said Smith’s crew chief Mark McFarland after the stop, referring to the team’s efforts to tighten what the driver deemed a loose car. “Hopefully we got it to where it’s comfortable to him.

“I’m confident in Sammy — I know he can do it. If we can get the car balanced right, it will be no problem.”

They got it right.

Smith passed Diaz for the lead just a few laps into the next run, and the rookie easily kept that lead en route to his third East Series win of the year.

In fact, Smith was so dominant in the closing laps of Saturday’s race that he lapped all but one car, second-place finisher Joey Iest, as he cruised to the checkered flag.

The dominating run grew Smith’s lead in the standings to 30 points over Diaz, who slipped to a seventh-place finish at Southern National.

With three races remaining, Smith’s edge is not insurmountable. But given that he is the only driver who has finished in the top five in each East Series race this season, and considering the Southern National 200 being the last standalone East Series race of the year, it will take a drastic turn of events for Smith to fall off this perch.

RELATED: Updated ARCA Menards Series East Points

Joey Iest’s rise

Thanks to a new career-best finish for Joey Iest, the Southern National race provided some movement in the championship standings behind Smith and Diaz.

Iest finished second Saturday, giving him enough points to jump New Smyrna race winner Max Gutiérrez for third in the standings. Iest, the 18-year-old rookie from Madera, California, is now just four points behind Diaz for second place.

Iest’s rise is not surprising; it’s the product of his consistency.

He is the only driver other than Smith who has completed all 912 possible laps in the East Series this season. He has four top-five finishes in five races; only Smith has more (five). He is one of four drivers (Smith, Gutiérrez, Daniel Dye) who have finished in the top 10 in all five races.

Iest is the only driver ranked in the top six in points who has not yet let a lap in 2021, but his average finish of 5.0 is the second best (behind Smith’s 1.8) among series regulars.

If that consistency continues, so too will his ascent in the standings.

Notes

  • Rajah Caruth earned a new career-best finish with a third-place run at Southern National. The rookie’s previous best was his fourth-place finish at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, earlier in the season.
  • Parker Retzlaff at Southern National earned his first career top-five finish when he crossed the line fourth. Retzlaff had finished in the top 10 a total of eight times, with sixth being his previous best before Saturday.
  • Justin S. Carroll, the fifth-place finisher at Southern National, earned his best finish since his runner-up at Virginia’s South Boston Speedway in 2018.
  • Driving for Willie Mullins, Davey Callihan finished ninth at Southern National in his debut on the ARCA Menards platform. Mullins allowed Callihan, his friend and competitor, to take the seat after being impressed with how quick he was when they shared a late model car at a test session several weeks ago.
  • Smith is second in total laps led across the ARCA Menards Series platform this year with 396. Only Gibbs (650 across ARCA Menards Series and East Series) has led more.