Monday night’s ARCA Menards Series East season-opening Jeep Beach 175 at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway was all about rookie winner Max Guiérrez. And with good reason given how he pulled off the victory.
More important than a viral highlight of a three-wide finish, though, is how the 18-year-old from Mexico City, Mexico, established himself as a contender in the East Series this season.
“The last corner, (Taylor Gray and Sammy Smith) were battling for first,” Gutiérrez said after the race. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I’m very happy, very proud of the team. That’s a great, great win to start the championship.”
Those last few words are key.
In the days leading up to the East Series opener at New Smyrna, Gutiérrez’s crew chief and car owner Mark Rette said the team hoped to contend for a top-10 finish. He added that his driver was a quick learner.
He was right about Gutiérrez being a quick learner, but he apparently was wrong to limit his goals to a top-10 finish.
In addition to Gutiérrez, a handful of young drivers established themselves as clear favorites to make runs at the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East title.
The list includes the pair of drivers Gutiérrez passed on the final stretch to steal the opener Monday night.
Gutiérrez ran toward the front of the field for most the Jeep Beach 175, but the final lap was the only one he led.
Gray and Smith led many laps at New Smyrna, a combined 111 of the 175 circuits, and were battling for the race win in the final corner when Gutiérrez injected himself into the equation.
Gray, 15, is running the No. 17 Ford Performance Ford full-time for powerhouse David Gilliland Racing in the East Series this season, and Smith, 16, is doing the same in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota. As the season progresses, there’s a chance those two drivers will find themselves in a series championship race as close as the New Smyrna finish.
And there’s a chance Gutiérrez will be hoping to leap at another opportunity in the title hunt.
Smith said after the race he felt as though he had the best car in the field Monday night, a statement he can back up with his race-high 78 laps led.
And while Gray appeared to have the best car at various points during the New Smyrna race, his 43 laps led were the third most behind Parker Retzlaff’s 55 laps led.
As the General Tire Pole Award winner, Gray jumped out to the race lead on Lap 1 but was quickly caught and passed by Retzlaff, who held the lead until Lap 66 when Gray took it back.
Retzlaff’s impressive show of speed at New Smyrna in the No. 42 Ponsse / Strike Force proved that he, too, will have a say in the East Series title race.
The other driver who separated himself Monday night as an East Series championship contender was fourth-place finisher Mason Diaz, who if not for a late spin would have been in the mix for the victory.
Before a crash on Lap 127 knocked him out of the race, GMS Racing’s Jack Wood also displayed some championship-caliber speed in his No. 21 Chevrolet Accessories Chevy.
Rette said before Monday night’s race he felt Gutiérrez had a chance to contend for the East Series title in 2021, a suspicion that was supported by his driver’s victory in the opener.
But Rette also admitted the field in the series this season is stacked with young talent. That proved to be so at New Smyrna, as well.
Smith and Gray were less than thrilled to finish second and third, respectively, in a three-wide battle for the win on the final stretch Monday night at New Smyrna. And they had their own separate issues compounding their post-race frustration.
Smith was leading and cruising to a probable victory when a caution for debris was thrown with 10 laps to go. That’s when a short rain shower arrived, delaying the conclusion of the race for almost two hours.
During that break, ARCA officials determined that Smith (and Wood, who had crashed out of the race) committed a violation when they pitted on the wrong lap earlier in the event. After pitting on Lap 91 with lead-lap cars for right side tires, Smith and Wood pitted again on Lap 92 with lapped cars rather than waiting for Lap 93, when pit road was to re-open for cars on the lead lap. That was when Smith and Diaz came down pit road for left-side tires.
“During the red flag near the end of Monday’s ARCA Menards Series East season opener at New Smyrna Speedway, ARCA officials reviewed scoring data related to the competition caution at the race’s midway point. ARCA’s modified live pit stop procedure calls for lead lap cars to pit for service the first time by when pit road is open, cars one or more laps down on the second lap, and any car can come back down pit road for service on the third lap. … Upon verifying the procedure violation, ARCA officials rectified the running order for the restart at lap 182.”
- Statement from ARCA Racing
When the race resumed for the closing laps, Smith was forced to restart fourth.
Diaz spun in the first corner of the first green-white-checkered attempt to bring out an immediate caution, which put Smith in third behind the leader Gray on the inside lane for the second and final green-white-checkered restart.
With Smith in tow, Gray appeared to be on his way to the victory until the source of his post-race frustration arrived.
In the final corner, Smith dove to the bottom and nudged his rival up the racetrack in a last-chance attempt to steal the win. The issue for both Smith and Gray was that the move opened the door for Gutiérrez to sneak below both of them on the inside with momentum for the final stretch.
“Just a last lap deal,” said Gray. “He moved me, and … didn’t do it right. Whatever. I’m not going to say too much more before I get in trouble.”