By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
It’s a short season, and with eight races remaining on the season, the championship favorite is still unknown.
Unlike the ARCA Menards Series West, the East has two races under its’ belt. Two different winners in those two races along with a good chunk of other drivers leave the door wide open for who will be the championship favorite, as the ARCA East Series takes the month of April off. Max Gutierez earned the victory at New Smyrna while Sammy Smith picked up his first victory of the season in Pensacola. Add in Taylor Gray, Mason Diaz, Joey Iest, and a few others and you have what looks to be one of the most competitive seasons brewing.
Let’s break down each driver to see who will utilize their skills to prove themselves for the 2021 ARCA East Championship.
Can Sammy Smith Hold the Points Lead in 2021?
Smith is racing for Joe Gibbs Racing for what seems to be a part-time schedule at this writing. The 16-year old from Johnston, Iowa will run all of the stand-alone East races but will give up the No. 18 car to Ty Gibbs when the Series heads to Iowa in July. He currently sits as the points leader in the East with an average finish of 1.5 in the first two races. Kickin’ the Tires has reached out to Joe Gibbs Racing concerning the chances of running a second car at Iowa, Milwaukee, and Bristol should Smith be in contention but the organization has not issued a statement at this time.
Smith started making waves in his career in the CARS Late Model Stock and CARS Super Late Model Tour with Kyle Busch Motorsports. During his time in Super Late Models, Smith earned six top-10 finishes in a row with every other finish being a second or third. Last season in the CARS Super Late Model Tour, Smith finished third in points behind Matt Craig and Kodie Conner.
Of all of the drivers competing for the ARCA East championship, Smith has the best average finish of all drivers with a 1.5 and also has led the most laps of the field with 223. He is also the only driver other than Taylor Gray to finish top-five in both ARCA Menards Series East events this season.
Will Gray Close the 2021 ARCA East Championship Gap?
Since jumping in the pool last season during the Sioux Chief Showdown Series, Taylor Gray is here and he means business. Still seeking his first victory of 2021, Gray has been solid so far in 2021. In his first full-time season, Gray has the best average start of any driver in the field at 1.5.
Gray was first seen in the CARS Late Model Stock Tour in 2019 with David Gilliland Racing. In nine events, Gray picked up a victory in his second start at Hickory. Despite not running the full-season, Gray still tallied a ninth-place finish in points. He made his ARCA debut in the East Series last year at Toledo finishing eighth. Missing the season-opening event at New Smyrna in 2020, Gray just missed out running the full-season but still finished eighth in points.
Gray tallied his first career victory at Kern County Raceway Park in the ARCA Menards Series West and ran solidly in the West finale at Phoenix finishing third. The season has started out hot for the No. 17 team finishing ninth at Phoenix in his ARCA Menards Series season debut and finishing third twice this season in the East.
Max Gutierrez is the Only Other Winner from 2021
While Gray and Smith were battling out for the victory in New Smyrna on the last lap, Max Gutierrez snuck by and earned his first career victory. That victory and a top-10 finish at Five Flags has kept him in the championship picture in third.
Gutierrez, the Mexico City, Mexico native moved from the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series in 2020 to run the East Series with Troy Williams. Gutierrez finished 14th and 12th in his first two ARCA East Series events. Meanwhile, Rette Jones Racing was expected to run full-time last season with Tristan Van Wieringen. But due to the financial strain that COVID-19 placed on teams, they were unable to do so.
Rette Jones Racing signed Gutierrez to the organization during the off-season and have now successfully earned their first victory together. He finished seventh at Five Flags keeping his name in the championship hunt but will need to step up his pace if he looks to continue running for the championship.
Diaz Looking to Spoil the Party with Visconti Motorsports
Mason Diaz made the move from Venturini Motorsports to Visconti Motorsports after Venturini shuttered its East Series entry. Diaz is the only active East Series driver who has raced in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. His move from Venturini to Visconti has done wonders for his career so far as he’s pushing closer and closer to his first career victory.
Diaz made his NASCAR debut in 2017 with Brandon Brown Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville. Since that debut, he’s made six starts in the Xfinity Series, two starts in the ARCA Menards Series, and two starts in the ARCA Menards Series West. He ran the full East schedule last season finishing fifth in points with a best finish of third at Dover.
The 2021 season is Diaz’s second full-time season in the ARCA Menards Series East and he’s put on a show in the Visconti Motorsports No. 74. He scraped close to his career-best finish of third at New Smyrna finishing fourth but it would be at Five Flags Speedway where he’d begin to show his hand battling Smith for the win and earning his first career runner-up finish. Diaz has an average start of 5.0, fourth of the ARCA East drivers who have run both events. He has the third-best average finish of 3.0.
Iest from the West Looking Solid in First Season
Joey Iest has been a silent hunter this season finishing top-five in both events so far this season. In his first full-time season, the Madera, California native has looked impressive on the East coast.
Iest has five total starts to his name in the West Series running with Mike Naake. He made his ARCA Menards Series debut earlier this year at Phoenix with Naake and in his career in the West Series, he has the best finish of 11th in his second career race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring.
Given the big opportunity running for David Gilliland Racing, Iest has been able to show who he is. He tied for the second-best average start with a 4.5 and has the fifth-best average finish of 5.0. Given his equipment in the West Series wasn’t as high caliber, the Western driver is showing strong results early in his Eastern career.
The Best of the Rest
Daniel Dye, Parker Retzlaff, Rajah Caruth, Richard Garvine, and Carson Kvapil are sitting outside the top-five but every driver, except Retzlaff, is rookies to running full-time in the ARCA Menards Series East. Retzlaff, Caruth, and Kvapil all had issues at New Smyrna while Garvine represents the underdogs running for Fast Track Racing.
Dye is embarking on his first full-time schedule in the ARCA Menards Series East with Ben Kennedy Racing. Dye has three straight top-10 finishes going with the most recent event being his worst finish of ninth. He had radiator issues which put him behind the pit wall after 183 laps. He earned his career-best finish at New Smyrna of sixth and currently sits sixth in ARCA East Series points.
Retzlaff is still playing catchup after a disappointing ending to a solid night at New Smyrna. The Rhinelander, Wisconsin native is the only other driver than Mason Diaz to have competed full-time in the East Series before. He is coming off of his career-best finish of sixth in Pensacola and is looking to knock ground off points leader Smith.
Rajah Caruth, Richard Garvine, and Carson Kvapil are also within striking distance of the top-five in points.
The East Series returns to action on May 8th at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. The Music City 200 will be broadcasted live on NBC Sports Gold: Track Pass starting at 9 p.m. ET and will be rebroadcasted on NBCSN on Thursday, May 13th at 1 p.m ET.
Cover Photo: Morgan Givens / ARCA Racing