William Sawalich closes East Series championship run with victory at Bristol Motor Speedway

BRISTOL, Tenn. — It wasn’t easy, but William Sawalich enjoyed a nearly perfect night Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The driver of the No. 18 Starkey-Sound Gear Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing captured not only the Bristol 200 for his fifth ARCA platform victory of the season, but also the 2023 ARCA Menards Series East championship.

“We’ve worked all year to get to this point,” Sawalich said. “This Joe Gibbs Racing team has done an amazing job all year.”

RELATED: Results from the Bristol 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway

The 16-year-old from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, entered Thursday’s race with a 20-point advantage on title rival Luke Fenahus. When Fenhaus crashed out of the Bristol 200 after 40 laps, Sawalich officially locked up the championship.

That just left Thursday’s 200-lap battle for supremacy at Bristol for Sawalich to conquer.

It was far from an easy task for Sawalich. Despite starting from the pole, Sawalich struggled to stay at the front of the field. Jesse Love and Landen Lewis took turns at the front during the first 150 laps while Sawalich gave chase, all the while battling a mechanical gremlin in the transmission of his Toyota.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I figured it out,” Sawalich admitted. “I can’t believe I did that. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that in this car. We got the win, so it doesn’t matter.”

Hard work from his Joe Gibbs Racing crew combined with the stoic determination Sawalich has shown throughout the 2023 season allowed him to get back in the fight.

With 34 laps left, Sawalich passed Lewis for second and set off in pursuit of Love. He was nearly to Love’s rear bumper when the caution flag waved with 18 laps left for a crash involving Lewis, setting up a 10-lap dash to the checkered flag.

Love held the lead on the restart, but Sawalich quickly ran him back down and with nine laps left made the race-winning move through Turns 3-4.

“I didn’t think we could get him (Love) there, but that caution came out and we could capitalize on that,” Sawalich said. “I’m really proud of this team and we had a really fast Starkey Toyota Camry.”

Love led the most laps, but he admitted he simply wasn’t fast enough when it mattered most.

“It obviously sucks to lead that much and to come up that short,” Love said. “I knew once the track took a bunch of rubber we kind of took a step back. Maybe we didn’t need to make some of the adjustments that we made at the break. I don’t know. I just didn’t want to stay consistent; I wanted to see if we could get a little bit better.

“Obviously the 18 [Sawalich] was hooked up. Hats off to them. I’m glad Toyota won the East championship.”

Andres Perez de Lara came home third for Rev Racing, followed by Dover Motor Speedway East Series winner Jake Finch and Daytona International Speedway victor Greg Van Alst.

Conner Jones, Landon Pembelton, Christian Rose, Jack Wood and Andy Jankowiak completed the top-10 finishers.

While the 2023 ARCA Menards Series East season may be over, the 2023 ARCA Menards Series season continues with the series’ annual trip to Salem Speedway on Sept. 30 for the running of the Atlas 200. The event will be broadcast live by FS2 and FloRacing at 7:30 p.m. ET.