By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
The ARCA Menards Series East kicks off its 2023 season this weekend with the Pensacola 200 at Five Flags Speedway.
For the fourth season in a row, the ARCA Menards Series East heads to Pensacola, Florida. Hosting the “Snowball Derby” every year, Five Flags Speedway has been a staple of racing. The venue hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race in 1953 with Herb Thomas picking up the victory.
After spending the last two seasons as the second race of the East Series campaign, 2023 marks the first time that it will kick off the season. ARCA itself debuted at Five Flags Speedway in 1992 with Roy Payne winning the first ARCA Menards Series race. The National Series raced at Five Flags from 1992-1996 before taking a hiatus from the track. The Series returned to Pensacola in 2019 with Michael Self earning the victory in the most recent National ARCA Menards Series race.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East debuted at Five Flags Speedway in 2013 with Ben Kennedy picking up the inaugural victory. Ben Rhodes earned the victory in 2014 before the series took a hiatus before returning in 2020. Sam Mayer earned the victory in the East Series’ return to Pensacola en route to his championship victory in 2020.
Sammy Smith earned back-to-back victories in 2021 and 2022, also earning the title later in the season. Rhodes, Mayer, and Smith all three earned victories in Pensacola in the same season they earned the championship meaning Saturday’s race could see the 2023 ARCA Menards Series East champion in victory lane.
In the last two seasons, the No. 18 has gone 2-0 at Five Flags Speedway. If Phoenix had ended the way he wanted it to, William Sawalich would be undefeated in ARCA in 2023 but it went south during one of the final restarts at Phoenix as he got turned on the dogleg defending the lead.
Putting Phoenix behind him though, Sawalich heads to a racetrack he has a good amount of experience. He has a multitude of victories in a Pro Late Model at Five Flags Speedway including in the Allen Turner Pro Late Model Series last July. He was supposed to make his Snowball Derby debut in 2023 but due to a concussion suffered in the All American 400 last year at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Sawalich was forced to sit it out.
Luke Fenhaus will make his ARCA Menards Series East debut Saturday Night in Pensacola as Pinnacle Racing Group fields the No. 28 entry. In 2021, Fenhaus became the youngest winner of the famed Slinger Nationals at Slinger Speedway in Slinger, Wisconsin. That victory propelled him to run in the Camping World SRX Series at Slinger.
The, at-the-time, 17-year old was passed by Marco Andretti on the final restart but he still earned a runner-up finish to a two-time NTT Data IndyCar Series race winner. He’s the youngest Slinger Speedway track champion and was also awarded the Alan Kulwicki Driver Development Program champion in his short career. With the newly formed Pinnacle Racing Group, the No. 28 team will look to race for the ARCA East championship with Shane Huffman overseeing the organization as team GM and crew chief.
Lavar Scott was brought into Daytona with Rev Racing as a fill in driver for Rev’s full-time National ARCA Menards Series driver Andrés Pérez de Lara, who at the time wasn’t old enough to compete on the high banks of Daytona. Scott made a name for himself though at that expense as he earned a fourth place finish in his debut last month.
The Carneys Point Township, New Jersey native has been a member of the Rev Racing Drive for Diversity program since the 2020 edition. Scott started his career in a 600-Micro Sprint and by the age of 12 was competing in the Tulsa Shootout in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the last few seasons, Scott has raced in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series earning the victory at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2021.
Jake Finch returns to the race track that he made his ARCA Menards Series East debut at in 2022. After a solid season in both the ARCA Menards Series and ARCA Menards Series East, Finch returns to the ARCA Menards Series East in 2023. Earning his first, and so far, only top-five finish last year at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Finch finished runner-up to race winner Sammy Smith after starting from the pole.
He also earned four top-10 finishes including a seventh place finish with Venturini Motorsports at Pocono in the National Series. Despite competing in just five of seven ARCA Menards Series East races in 2022, Finch still tallied a sixth place finish in points. Finch will have a teammate at Pensacola with Sean Hingorani running the other Venturini Motorsports entry.
Sean Hingorani will be running for both the ARCA Menards Series East and West championships in 2023 with Venturini Motorsports. Hingorani finished 16th in the ARCA Menards Serie West season opener earlier this year and will look to kick off his 2023 ARCA Menards Series East campaign on a strong note.
The 16-year old from Newport Beach, California has 67 career racing starts with 19 US Legends Cars and six Pro-Late Model victories to his credit. He’s also tallied 49 top-10 finishes in those 67 races. Despite not having experience in an ARCA car at Five Flags Speedway, Hingorani took laps in a Super Late Model in 2022.
2023 has been full of surprise victors and the most recent one, is entered in Saturday’s race at Pensacola. Tyler Reif and his crew will invade the ARCA Menards Series East in 2023. Reif will run the full ARCA Menards Series East races in 2023 as well as all the West races.
If this invasion goes as well as the last one, Reif will show the East how its done just like he did in Phoenix to the National Series. Reif picked up his first career ARCA Menards Series West/National victory earlier this month holding off Landon Lewis. Now holding the West championship lead, can Reif lead both minor ARCA Menards Series after Saturday Nights race?
Tanner Arms and MAN Motorsports return to the ARCA Menards Series East in 2023. After running two ARCA Menards Series East races in 2022, Arms will make his Five Flags Speedway debut this weekend behind the wheel of the No. 95 Sunset Park RV Manufacturing Toyota Camry.
Arms earned his best finish of sixth last year at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and followed it up with a 15th place finish at Bristol. MAN Motorsports has expanded their schedule to add Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Berlin Raceway, Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, The Milwaukee Mile, and the National season finale at Toledo Speedway.
Zachary Tinkle will run the full ARCA Menards Series East campaign in 2023 with Fast Track Racing. Tinkle is one of the veterans running full-time in the ARCA Menards Series East this season with 27 ARCA Menards Series, five East, and one West start to his credit. In those 33 starts, Tinkle has the best finish of eighth in 2021 at DuQuoin in the National ARCA Series. He ran four of seven races in the East Series last season finishing the best of 16th at New Smyrna and finishing 14th in points.
RISE Motorsports makes its debut this weekend with Rita Goulet behind the wheel. RISE Motorsports is filled with many long time faces in the NASCAR garage with Tim and Rita Goulet being the team owners, NASCAR Xfinity Series winner Stephen Leicht driving in a few races as well as holding a coaching position, and Sebastian “Sea-bass” Laforge as the crew chief. Rita has four career ARCA Menards Series starts with the best finish of 12th in her debut at Berlin. Saturday’s race will be her debut at Five Flags Speedway.
The Pensacola 200 will go live on FloRacing starting at 8 p.m. ET and will also be broadcasted via audio on the ARCA Racing website. A tape-delayed broadcast of the race will be shown on CNBC on April 2nd, 2023 at 11:00 a.m. ET. Tickets for the Pensacola 200 can be purchased by clicking here or by calling 850-944-8400.