Perfect restart catapults Gio Ruggiero to first ARCA Menards Series East victory at Five Flags Speedway

PENSACOLA, Fla. — If Saturday’s Pensacola 150 at Five Flags Speedway is any indication, anyone hoping to capture the ARCA Menards Series East championship will have to go through Gio Ruggiero.

Making just his third ARCA platform start, the 19-year-old from Seekonk, Massachusetts battled past reigning East Series champion William Sawalich on his way to his first ARCA Menards Series East victory.

After starting fourth, Ruggiero spent the entire first half of the 150-lap event chasing Sawalich, who started from the General Tire Pole. However, when the green flag waved to resume the race after the halfway break, Ruggiero’s No. 20 JBL Toyota stormed into the lead.

RELATED: Complete results from the Pensacola 150

“It was kind of like Phoenix in reverse,” Ruggiero said. “The first half there we were kind of behind him saving. Then that restart came. I needed to work on my restarts, so I was studying my restarts there all week, and I got better there, and that’s how we beat him.”

The driver from Massachusetts masterfully worked his way through traffic in his Venturini Motorsports machine during the final 75 laps as Sawalich stalked him.

Ruggiero was three-wide multiple times as he sliced his way passed slower traffic, but he never put a tire out of line and comfortably crossed the finish line first.

The victory Saturday evening also gives Ruggiero a unique opportunity to secure an extra $5,000 should he also win Sunday’s ASA STARS National Tour event at Five Flags.

“It’s going to be a great race tomorrow. I’m ready to win again,” Ruggiero said.

Sawalich admitted his team took a swing in the wrong direction with adjustments during the halfway break, which prevented him from challenging Ruggiero when it mattered most.

“We just made the wrong adjustment during the break,” Sawalich said. “We kind of swapped balances, I guess. He had a really good car in the second half, I had a really good car in the first half.”

Bubba Pollard, making his ARCA Menards Series East debut as part of his preparations ahead of his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut next weekend at Richmond Raceway, finished third.

Connor Zilisch, who finished fourth in Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event at Circuit of the Americas before flying to Florida to compete at Five Flags, overcame mechanical issues in his No. 28 Pinnacle Racing Group Chevrolet to finish fourth.

Hunter Wright, the 2024 World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing Pro Late Model champion, finished fifth in his ARCA Menards Series East debut.

Jake Finch appeared to have one of the best cars on the property after pacing practice and qualifying second, but a flat tire in the early laps of the race relegated him to a seventh-place finish.

The ARCA Menards Series East season resumes Friday, April 26 when the series unites with the ARCA Menards Series for the running of the General Tire 150 at Dover Motor Speedway. Fans can catch the action live at 5 p.m. ET on FS1.