The ARCA Menards Series returns to action in the ARCA Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions at Five Flags Speedway on Saturday, March 9. The race, scheduled for an 8 pm ET green flag, will be the first short track event of the series' 20-race season and the first race since its 67th season started at Daytona International Speedway in February.
While Daytona winner Harrison Burton and runner-up Todd Gilliland will not be in action, their teams will be. Both drivers are running limited ARCA Menards Series schedules while competing full time in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Burton drove the Venturini Motorsports Toyota to victory in the Lucas Oil 200 driven by General Tire in the season opener, his third career ARCA win. His seat will be filled by 16-year-old Chandler Smith, who will compete for the ARCA Menards Series Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge championship in 2019.
Smith, from Talking Rock, Georgia, set the ARCA world ablaze in 2018 when he started from the General Tire Pole in each of his first four series starts, a modern era ARCA record. He also won twice, winning at Madison in June and closing the season with a dominant performance at Salem in which he led 199 of the race's 200 laps. Smith made only nine starts in 2018 but led 763 laps to win the Valvoline Lap Leader Award.
"It's tough to know we were the car to beat every week last year and not be on the track when the season started at Daytona," Smith said. "But we do have a championship to chase with the Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge. And we want to win every race we're in. I am really excited to get the season started and go get some wins with my Venturini Motorsports guys."
While not old enough to compete on tracks longer than one mile, and therefore not yet eligible to race at Daytona, Smith knocked the rust off in the ARCA/CRA Super Series Super Late Model opener at Crisp Motorsports Park in Cordele, Georgia. Smith battled for the lead throughout the late stages with eventual race winner Connor Okrzesik before setting for fourth at the finish behind former Monster Energy Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and his Venturini Motorsports teammate Burton.
Smith has three previous starts in the famed Snowball Derby at Five Flags. He finished a career best fifth in 2016, seventh in 2017, and sixth in 2018.
“We had a lot of success in the ARCA Menards Series last year. I’m coming back with an expanded short track schedule and focused on continuing to learn as much as I can," Smith said. "I’ve run a lot of races at Five Flags. My experience should pay off. I'm happy they added this one to the schedule. I can't thank everyone at Toyota Racing Development and Venturini Motorsports enough for giving me the opportunity.”
Gilliland's DGR-Crosley Racing team will be in action as well. Tanner Gray, the youngest winner in the history of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock division, will make his ARCA Menards Series debut on the sweeping half-mile oval. Gray is a third-generation drag racer, the son of former national event winner Shane Gray and grandson of Funny Car and Pro Stock champion Johnny Gray.
Gray won five NHRA national events in 2017, which was his rookie season. He was named the winner of the prestigious Road to the Future Award, joining a long list of names which includes drag racing legends Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Del Worsham, and Jeg Coughlin, Jr.
In 2018, Gray upped his game. In just his second full-time season, he became the youngest Pro Stock champion in NHRA history. He won eight national event final rounds, including his first win in the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. He closed the 2018 season with 13 career Pro Stock national event wins in 18 career final round appearances.
"I knew whenever we pulled that Pro Stock out of the truck we'd have a shot to win," Gray said. "I thought I accomplished all we could accomplish there in a short period of time. They were cutting races back, and I was looking for a way to race more. We reached out to David (Gilliland, team co-owner) and started to put a deal together to come race with them."
The transition to oval track racing may have shocked some in the straight-line world, but Gray began his racing career much like NASCAR stars and up-and-comers have: in a go-kart racing on a dirt oval.
"I got my start in 600 micro sprints at Millbridge, so oval track racing isn't strange to me," Gray said. "I actually ran some late model stuff before I went drag racing and it just didn't work out. That's when my dad told me about the drag car. I grew up on the oval tracks though, so it doesn't feel like a real big change, especially this early in my career."
Gray made his debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway in February, finishing 15th.
"The K&N race didn't go like we were hoping," Gray said. "I still have a lot to learn. There are a lot of really great people on the team that are helping me learn what I need to learn. We ran up front for a while, but I didn't manage the race the way I needed to. It's just one of those things I'll need to learn as we go along."
Smith, Gray, and the rest of the ARCA Menards Series take to the half-mile Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida on Saturday, March 9. Practice starts at 1 pm ET/12 pm CT; General Tire Pole Qualifying is set for 4:30 pm ET/3:30 pm CT; and the ARCA Pensacola 200 is set to go green at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT and will be televised live on MAVTV. ARCARacing.com will have live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates throughout all on track sessions free for ARCA for Me members. New members may register for free at ARCARacing.com/login.
-ARCA Press Release
-Photo credit: Speed51.com