PENSACOLA, Fla. — William Sawalich arrived at Five Flags Speedway for the Pensacola 200 with redemption on his mind.
A potential victory in his first ARCA Menards Series start on March 10 at Phoenix Raceway evaporated in the closing laps when Sawalich was turned by Bradley Erickson on a restart. The incident forced Sawalich to limp his battered No. 18 Starkey/ Sound Gear Toyota home with a disappointing 13th place run.
No such obstacle plagued Sawalich in his inaugural ARCA Menards Series East appearance Saturday, as he led every lap from the General Tire Pole to continue a pattern of success that’s followed the No. 18 on the ARCA platform over the past few years.
“I can’t thank this Joe Gibbs Racing team enough,” Sawalich said. “We had a really fast Toyota Camry here, and the team worked hard to make this car as good as it [was].”
RACE RESULTS: Pensacola 200 at Five Flags Speedway
Sawalich had high expectations to live up to in the No. 18 entering 2023, as Ty Gibbs and Sammy Smith both earned ARCA and ARCA East championships, respectively, utilizing that number.
With plenty of Super Late Model and Pro Late Model victories to his name, Sawalich had plenty of confidence in his ability to carry on the efficiency of the No. 18 in ARCA. All of it was on full display the moment the green flag flew for the Pensacola 200.
Sawalich’s only real challenge came in the form of Luke Fenhaus, who was also making his East Series debut driving for Pinnacle Racing Group. Fenhaus successfully chased down Sawalich during the final 50 laps but ultimately could not get the run he needed to make the race-winning pass.
The winner of the 2021 Slinger Nationals at Slinger Speedway, Fenhaus is no stranger to success on short tracks. But he anticipated having to deal with a learning curve in the East Series due to Pinnacle Racing Group being a new to the platform.
Fenhaus is confident his experience and the leadership of team owner Shane Huffman will yield more strong performances over the 2023 season, but he said everyone needs to keep working hard each week to maximize the potential of the organization.
“Potential is a big word,” Fenhaus said. “We’ve been getting [cars] ready for the season for the last couple of months. It’s good to come in second, but it’s hard to be that close [to a victory]. These guys worked so hard and I’m proud of the effort. We’ll keep learning and move on.”
Fenhaus added that Sawalich and Joe Gibbs Racing set the benchmark on where he and Pinnacle Racing Group need to be moving forward.
Sawalich wanted to temper his own expectations about finding success in the No. 18 knowing he would have to adapt to the heavier cars. Now that he has an ARCA East win on his resume, Sawalich is determined to duplicate that performance over his 18 remaining ARCA races in 2023, seven of which encompass the rest of the East Series schedule.
“The championship is in play,” Sawalich said. “I think we can dominate everywhere we go.”
Jake Finch managed to bring home a third-place finish in the Pensacola 200 while driving for Venturini Motorsports. Finch’s teammate Sean Hingorani came home fourth with Lavar Scott rounding out the top five.
A replay of the Pensacola 200 at Five Flags Speedway can be seen on CNBC at 11 a.m. ET on April 2.
The ARCA Menards Series East gets a month off before its next race, which will take place at Dover Motor Speedway on April 28 at 5:30 p.m. ET. The race will be shown live on FloRacing.