When the 2021 ARCA Menards Series schedule was released 10 months ago, the Sept. 16 event at Bristol Motor Speedway immediately stood out as one of the biggest races of the year.
Sure enough, the final race of the ARCA Menards Series East season, a combination event with the ARCA Menards Series, will settle one championship battle while serving as a pivotal event in two others.
Thursday’s Bush’s Beans 200 (6:30 p.m. ET on FS1) at the half-mile concrete oval in Bristol, Tennessee, also represents Round 9 of the 10-race Sioux Chief Showdown, a series within the ARCA platform that allows East and West Series regulars to compete against ARCA Menards Series drivers for a title on short tracks and road courses.
Which means Ty Gibbs on Thursday night will attempt to extend his championship points lead over Corey Heim in two series. Gibbs has a 16-point lead in the ARCA Menards Series standings with three races remaining and a 13-point advantage in the Showdown standings with two events to go.
But only the East Series will see a champion crowned Thursday at the track known as the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.
In basic terms, the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East championship is rookie Sammy Smith’s to lose. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver holds a 24-point edge over second-place Daniel Dye in the standings entering the final race of the East season.
If Smith, the 17-year-old from Johnston, Iowa, finishes 19th or better at Bristol, he will clinch the title no matter what Dye does. If Smith parks his No. 81 Engine Ice Toyota in 20th or worse, Dye’s championship scenarios will become possible.
As for Dye, the 17-year-old driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet who will race at Bristol with American Flat Track as a new primary sponsor, he needs to finish seventh or better (without bonus points) to give himself a chance to win the championship.
Dye also could win it by finishing eighth with one bonus point, ninth with two bonus points or 10th with three bonus points. Of course, that’s assuming Smith finishes last.
As long as Smith starts the race and earns at least the minimum points for finishing last (32nd), in addition to Dye, only Mason Diaz has the potential to win the championship. Diaz needs to win the race while Smith finishes last with no bonus points. If Smith were to finish 29th through 31st, again without bonus points, Diaz would need the win plus bonus points. Diaz would also need Dye to finish the season with 358 points or fewer to jump both drivers.
So while the East Series title battle is settled Thursday, the ARCA Menards Series championship race will be heavily impacted by the results. The question is whether Gibbs can continue the momentum he established over the last couple races.
Gibbs won the Aug. 29 race at the Milwaukee Mile as an answer to Heim’s win the week prior at the Springfield Mile on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. And though Gibbs finished second to rookie Landen Lewis at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds on Sept. 5, Heim’s seventh-place run allowed his rival to stretch his points lead.
Gibbs’ 16-point edge with three races remaining is far from insurmountable, especially with 32 cars entered at Bristol.
But if the driver who has won the most races (nine) and led the most laps (1,238) in 2021 excels in Thunder Valley, Heim might find himself in a tough spot points-wise for the final pair of races.
A stacked entry list
Though predictable with the Bush’s Beans 200 being a combination event, the race’s entry list is stuffed with some of the best talent on the ARCA Menards platform.
In addition to the aforementioned drivers racing for titles, past champions and ARCA Menards race winners will compete at Bristol.
Among them is Sam Mayer, the two-time reigning East Series champion who also took last year’s Sioux Chief Showdown title. As he has in four races already this season, Mayer will drive for 2020 ARCA Menards Series champion Bret Holmes’ family-owned team.
Mayer not only dominated the ARCA Menards Series race at Bristol last season, but he won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the track on the same night. The 18-year-old has been racing part time in both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Truck Series this year, too.
Mayer will be looking for his fifth consecutive victory on Bristol’s demanding high banks. He also won both East Series races at the track in 2019.
ARCA Menards Series powerhouse Venturini Motorsports will field four cars at Bristol, including Heim’s No. 20 Craftsman Toyota. Defending West Series champion Jesse Love will race the team’s No. 25 JBL Toyota, and one-time ARCA winner Drew Dollar will run his familiar No. 15 Sunbelt Rentals Toyota. Parker Chase, who has two top 10s in his two ARCA starts this season, is the team’s fourth entry in the No. 55 NXTLVL Marine Toyota.
Nick Sanchez and Rajah Caruth, the rookies driving for Rev Racing this season as full-timers in the ARCA Menards Series and East Series, respectively, are entered as teammates at Bristol.
Speaking of teammates, Dye will have one at Bristol, as well. Jack Wood will compete for GMS Racing in the No. 22 Chevy Accessories Chevrolet.
Max Gutiérrez and Joey Iest, two more drivers who have wins on the ARCA Menards platform in 2021, will race at Bristol, too.
FS1’s final ARCA Menards Series race of 2021
Thursday’s Bush’s Beans 200 at Bristol is the last ARCA Menards Series race of the 2021 season that will broadcast live on FS1. The final two races of the season, at Salem Speedway on Oct. 2 and at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 23, will broadcast live on MAVTV Motorsports Network.
Which means the Bristol race is the last call of 2021 for FS1’s rookie ARCA play-by-play announcer Jamie Little.
FOX Sports in November announced Little would make broadcasting history by becoming the first woman to serve as the television voice of a national motorsports series. In her 20th year of broadcasting, Little has called each of FS1’s ARCA Menards Series races in 2021 in addition to continuing her FOX NASCAR pit reporting duties.
Paired with analyst Phil Parsons, Little has called this season’s ARCA Menards Series races at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Pocono Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
The Bristol race marks FS1’s eighth ARCA Menards Series broadcast of the season.
- Drew Dollar, Taylor Gray and Sam Mayer will run two races Thursday night at Bristol. All are entered in the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, which is scheduled to start after the ARCA race (9 p.m. ET on FS1).
- In addition to Thursday’s Bush’s Beans 200, Ty Gibbs and Sam Mayer are entered in Saturday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Bristol. The Food City 300 is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. ET and broadcast live on NBCSN. Gibbs has three wins, eight top fives and nine top 10s in 13 Xfinity starts as a series rookie this season.
- Sam Mayer is the only driver who will race in all three events at Bristol on Friday and Saturday. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in 10 Xfinity Series starts this season. Mayer also has three top 10s in four Truck Series starts in 2021.
- The Bush’s Beans 200 at Bristol will be the 1,511th race in series history dating back to May 10, 1953, at Dayton Speedway. The race will mark the fourth time the series has raced at Bristol, the 60th time the series has raced in the state of Tennessee and the 17th time the series has raced on concrete.
- The Bristol race in 2020 marked the first time the ARCA Menards Series had raced at the track in 18,750 days, a span of 51 years, three months and 30 days. That’s the second largest gap between races at a single track in series history, behind only Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which had a span of 20,403 days — or 55 years, 10 months and 10 days — between its first race in July of 1965 and its second race in June of this year.
- The 32-car entry list for the Bush’s Beans 200 represents the most for an ARCA Menards Series short-track race since the event at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2017 (29). It’s the first time the series has seen 30 or more cars on a short-track entry list since the race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway earlier that season.