By Todd Haislop, ARCA Menards Series
PENSACOLA, Fla. — The 2022 ARCA Menards Series East opener last month at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway indicated the season would feature a healthy dose of Sammy Smith vs. Taylor Gray at the front of the field.
That was the case in Race 2 on Saturday night at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida — at least until Gray was issued a penalty for jumping a restart with fewer than 20 laps to go.
With Gray removed from the equation, Smith, the 17-year-old defending East Series champion from Johnston, Iowa, cruised to victory in the Pensacola 200. The triumph marked his fifth victory in the East Series competition and second in a row after his win a few weeks ago at New Smyrna.
“The whole time I felt good about it,” Smith said. “We struggled in qualifying, but I knew in the race it’d come to life, and it did.”
Smith, who started fourth, took the lead from Gray on Lap 87 and in effect never gave it up despite multiple challenges from his rival on a series of late-race restarts.
ARCA officials determined that Gray, on a restart with 18 laps to go, jumped the green flag on the outside of Smith before Smith ultimately kept the lead. On the following (and final) restart, with 11 laps to go, Gray was forced to restart on the tail end of the lead lap as a result of his penalty.
Gray battled back to a third-place finish, his ninth top-five run in East Series competition dating back to 2020.
“We were fast. Just building, and got to get better,” said Gray, who won last week’s ARCA Menards Series/West Series combination race at Phoenix Raceway on the heels of a tragedy involving a David Gilliland Racing hauler driver. Gray raced the same car Saturday night that he drove to Victory Lane at Phoenix.
Added Gray on his penalty: “I feel like we got that one stolen away from us.”
Leland Honeyman, who earned his first General Tire Pole Award on Saturday afternoon at Five Flags ahead of just his second East Series start, finished second to Smith after holding off a charging Gray in the closing laps.
“I think we did have a shot to win it there at the end,” Honeyman allowed. “Just came up a little bit short. Those Young’s Motorsports guys will get it done at Dover.”
Daniel Escoto, a rookie who made his first start on the ARCA Menards platform Saturday night driving for Josh Williams Motorsports, finished fourth. Willie Mullins finished fifth in his first time racing at Five Flags.
Brandon Varney, Ashton Higgins, Jake Finch, Donald Theetge and Christian Rose rounded out the top 10.
Smith, who now races for Kyle Busch Motorsports after the organization acquired the No. 18 TMC Transportation Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, starts his East Series title defense with consecutive victories.
Smith finished second in last year’s East Series season-opener at New Smyrna before reeling off consecutive victories at Five Flags and Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to charge ahead in the standings. He won three races last season en route to his title.
The East Series season continues Friday, April 29, at Dover Motor Speedway. The Dover 125 will broadcast live on FloRacing starting at 5:30 p.m. ET.
A replay of Saturday’s Pensacola 200 at Five Flags Speedway will be broadcast on USA Network on Monday, March 28 at 1 p.m. ET.
Photo: ARCA Menards Series