It was a finish everyone anticipated, but no one expected.
Headed into turn three on the final lap of the season-opening ARCA Menards Series East race at New Smyrna Speedway, everyone anticipated contact between the leaders. Taylor Gray had led three times on the night, including the previous five laps as he took the lead on a late-race restart. That restart involved a lot of contact into turn one, sending Mason Diaz around and out of contention.
The next restart, the final one of the race, put Sammy Smith next to Gray coming to the green. Smith had led 78 laps, leading through lap 171 when officials realigned him fourth in the field after a pit road violation. Smith had to be aggressive to get back to the lead because the race was now in overtime. He had two laps to make it happen.
Gray opened a slight lead at the drop of the green and held it for the first of the two overtime circuits. Smith closed the gap coming to the white flag. Everyone anticipated what came next.
Headed into turn three, Smith got to Gray’s bumper and made contact. That’s almost standard operating procedure in full-fendered stock car racing these days. The leader expects a shove from behind on the final lap if the driver in second place is close enough to make it happen. Smith was definitely close enough and carried a lot of speed going into the final two turns of the race. The contact didn’t just send Gray up the track, it sent Gray and Smith up the track and left the bottom groove at the high-banked half-mile wide open.
Enter NASCAR Mexico Challenge Series champion Max Gutierrez.
Driving for 2009 ARCA Menards Series championship-winning crew chief Mark Rette, Gutierrez pounced. He dove to the bottom of the track and filled the gap. When Smith and Gray came down the track, they bounced off Gutierrez, with all three making contact coming to the start finish line. But that contact couldn’t stop Gutierrez’s momentum and he nipped Smith at the finish by 0.03 seconds, about the distance from the tip of the nose to the center of his front wheel.
Gutierrez, who still lives in Mexico and commutes to the United States to race, scored the first win of his career in the most surprising fashion.
“I can’t believe it,” Gutierrez said in victory lane. “I thought we were in a good place (third) on the last lap for the season championship. Then they started bumping for first and I decided to take it. I am very happy and proud of my team. That is a great way to start off this championship.”
The next step for Gutierrez will be in Saturday’s Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions at Five Flags Speedway. It will be the fourth time the ARCA Menards Series East has raced at the half-mile oval that is the host of the prestigious Snowball Derby every December. Current series team owner Ben Kennedy, who owns the No. 43 car driven by Daniel Dye, won in 2013 while Ben Rhodes, who recently won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway, won in 2014. Two-time champion Sam Mayer put an exclamation point on his 2020 championship season with his fifth win of the season in last year’s race.
For ticket information, visit FiveFlagsSpeedway.com or TrackEnterprises.com.
Practice for the Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions is scheduled for 1:15 pm ET/12:15 pm local, with General Tire Pole Qualifying to follow at 3:30 pm ET/2:30 pm local. Saturday’s race will be streamed live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold starting at 6 pm ET/5 pm local. It will be rebroadcast on a tape-delayed basis on NBCSN on Thursday, March 4 at 4 pm ET.