Sammy Smith found himself in the lead when it began to rain with four laps to go in Monday’s ARCA Menards Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway. However, when the track was dry he found himself in fourth.
ARCA officials moved Smith back to the fourth position for the restart after they deemed Smith went to pit road too early during the halfway competition yellow. The move was made after officials reviewed the pit sequence during the weather delay with four laps to go.
Even with the penalty, Smith still found himself with a chance to win in his series debut. He put the bumper to Taylor Gray in the final corner, sending both the leader and himself up the track with the checkered flag in sight.
The move allowed Max Gutierrez to slip inside both drivers and get to the line first to score his first-career ARCA Menards Series East triumph in a three-wide photo finish. The margin of victory would be 0.046 seconds over Smith, the only lap led by the defending champion in the Mexico-based NASCAR FedEx Challenge Series.
“I still can’t believe it. Qualifying was a surprise for me and that last green-white-checkered I was like okay, third place is a good spot for the championship,” Gutierrez said on the NBC TrackPass broadcast. “In the last corner they were bumping for first and I saw the lane open and I took it. I’m very happy and very proud for the team, that’s a great way to start out the championship.”
Smith led from the restart following the halfway competition yellow until the penalty was handed down, having checked out from the field. The Iowa teenager was unhappy with how the race ultimately played out, arguing that the pit stop that was made was legal to begin with.
With the cards he was dealt with for the final green-white-checkered, Smith did what he felt like he had to do to try to win the race.
“That should’ve never happened. They penalized us 80 laps later for something that we did right and everybody else did wrong. I can’t really control that,” Smith said. “I felt like I had to do what I had to do to try to win and I felt like we had the best car. S— happens.”
Taylor Gray was ultimately the beneficiary of Smith’s penalty, starting the final restart from the pole. He looked to have his first ARCA East win in hand going into the final set of corners before Smith initiated contact. Gray would be shuffled back to third in the drag race to the finish.
He was a driver of few words post-race, while expressing his disdain with Smith for the contact in the final corner.
“Basically it’s just a last-lap deal. He tried to move me and didn’t move me right,” Gray stated. “Whatever, I’m not going to say too much more before I get in trouble.”
Mason Diaz and Joey Iest rounded out the top-five.
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-Story by: Koty Geyer, Speed51 National Correspondent – Twitter: @kgeyer3
-Photo credit: Speed51 / Will Bellamy
ARCA Menards Series East Results: