(Photo: Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

William Sawalich set on extending Joe Gibbs Racing’s run of success with iconic No. 18 in ARCA Menards Series

Any driver that climbs into the No. 18 in the ARCA Menards Series knows the expectations placed upon them.

That number has been a mainstay at the front of the field across all three ARCA divisions over the past several years. Current NASCAR Cup Series driver Ty Gibbs won an ARCA title in the No. 18 back in 2021, all while Sammy Smith has won the last two ARCA Menards Series East championships.

Short track standout William Sawalich is the latest driver to take over the iconic No. 18 in ARCA, which finds itself back under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner in 2023. He is set to embark on a busy 20-race campaign starting with the General Tire 150 at Phoenix Raceway on Friday.

Sawalich is keeping his own expectations in check ahead of his ARCA debut, but he is eager to pick up from where Smith left off last season and write his own chapter in one of the series’ most efficient cars.

“We had a test at Motor Mile [last week] and that went really well,” Sawalich said. “I’m really confident in the car, so I’m definitely expecting some wins and good consistent results. You obviously can’t win every single race, but I feel like a Top 5 or Top 3 [each week] would be the best option. We’ll see when that first win comes.”

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The resume Sawalich has amassed on short tracks in just the past year alone made him a worthy candidate for the No. 18 seat.

Sawalich was close to unstoppable in nearly every race he entered in the CARS Pro Late Model Tour for Setzer Racing & Development. He ended up visiting Victory Lane on six different occasions, which included a stretch that saw him lead 474 consecutive laps.

The momentum Sawalich accumulated in Pro Late Models carried over into his limited Super Late Model starts with Donnie Wilson Motorsports. Facing veterans like Bubba Pollard, Stephen Nasse and Augie Grill, Sawalich was stalwart on track and tallied four Super Late Model victories before 2022 concluded.

Sawalich nearly obtained the biggest victory of his career in last year’s All-American 400 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Leading with three laps to go, an ill-timed caution bunched the field up for a late restart, which led to a crash that sent Sawalich backwards into the outside retaining wall.

Not only was Sawalich denied an All-American 400 victory in heartbreaking fashion, but he also sustained a concussion in the accident, which forced him to miss his planned ARCA Menards Series West debut with Kyle Busch Motorsports at Phoenix in November.

William Sawalich garnered plenty of experience in 2022, winning five races while driving for Donnie Wilson Motorsports (Photo: Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

While Sawalich would have preferred getting comfortable with Phoenix prior to Friday’s General Tire 150, he believes having the advice of the Setzer family and Wilson at his disposal gives him an advantage compared to other young drivers on the entry list.

“[Short track racing] basically [taught me] everything,” Sawalich said. “I learned how to set up passes and how to save tires. The Setzers have so much experience in the Carolinas and the Wilson crew has experience just about everywhere. Both of them combined help me perfect my short track craft and I think I can take all that knowledge into the ARCA car and be just fine.”

Mark McFarland, who now serves as the Director of Operations for Gibbs’ ARCA program after previously working as a crew chief, has been impressed with the composure and maturity Sawalich has displayed since joining the team.

The seat time Sawalich has endured across several different disciplines is the main reason why McFarland sees him as a more well-rounded development driver compared to other prospects, which he thinks will make the transition from Super Late Models to ARCA much more seamless for Sawalich.

With plenty of races planned for Sawalich outside of ARCA in 2023, McFarland expects his confidence to grow with each start.

“William is going to be a little bit ahead of Ty and Sammy as far as experience level compared to age,” McFarland said. “He’s going to have a whole year of racing in front of him. William is running 20 races for us, and I think about 20 more when you factor in Late Models, [Trans Am 2] and Trucks. That’ll give him so much more experience than other 16-year-olds.”

As someone who enjoyed plenty of short track success before moving up to NASCAR in the 2000s, McFarland still sees Sawalich going through a learning curve as he gradually adapts to the heavier, more aero-dependent ARCA cars.

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Balance is the main concept McFarland intends to work closely on with Sawalich at Phoenix this weekend. He said proper handling is imperative through an entire Phoenix race regardless of distance but stressed finding an ideal balance comes down to a setup that is perfect for the track conditions and Sawalich’s preferences.

Once all the kinks get worked out following their first race together, McFarland envisions another stellar year that will see Sawalich earn the No. 18 its third consecutive ARCA East championship.

The No. 18 has been the gold standard in the ARCA Menards Series over the past few years, with Sammy Smith grabbing the last two ARCA East titles in the car. (Photo: ARCA Menards Series)

“The first win is always hard to get,” McFarland said. “[ARCA] is going to be tough this year with a lot of new teams coming in. It’ll be competitive, but we have the best team out there. We just have to do our job by giving [William] cars good enough to win. If we can win 5-10 times, I feel like that would be a really good year.”

Like McFarland, Sawalich is not fully expecting his first ARCA start to result in a trip to Victory Lane with an entry list featuring over 30 cars, but he plans to work diligently with his team to ensure he is competitive through all 150 laps.

Finding consistency is Sawalich’s main goal with Gibbs, adding a strong performance against a stellar field of cars at Phoenix would be crucial towards building off the momentum he established on short tracks in 2022.

“A Top 5 would be good,” Sawalich said. “The field is going to be pretty close compared to other races and it’ll probably be one of the biggest races of the year right off the bat. I’m excited for the competition, but I’m confident we’ll be good [on Friday].”

Expectations are high for Sawalich, but he is confident in his ability to meet the standard of success that has been associated with Gibbs’ No. 18 since it first appeared in NASCAR back in 1992.