Sammy Smith strolled to Victory Lane in 2021 at Five Flags Speedway. Twelve months later, the 17-year-old Iowan had to earn his way back there.
Sweat poured from his brow and exhaustion punctuated each sentence as Smith celebrated his historic second consecutive Pensacola ARCA 200 victory Saturday at the famed half-mile asphalt oval. While the result was the same, the race itself looked vastly different than Smith’s dominating wire-to-wire win a year ago.
The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver finally found clean air at Lap 89 on Saturday night and survived restart after restart en route to hoisting the winner’s trophy. The Pensacola ARCA 200 officially kicked off the 2022 racing season at Five Flags after Mother Nature rained out Friday’s night local divisions slate.
“I knew as the race went on, (the car) would come to life,” Smith said, frustrated with his qualifying effort and first half of the race. “I have to thank my team for making the car better. We struggled early.”
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Fifteen cars took the opening green, but only nine finished a race marred by attrition courtesy of seven cautions. Clearly showing that the ARCA Menards Series East holds the future of the sport, fellow 17-year-old Leland Honeyman finished runner-up to Smith and 16-year-old Taylor Gray rounded out the podium. Gray, fresh off an ARCA victory in Phoenix last week, led 61 laps Saturday and posed the biggest threat to Smith. The pair had several side-by-side battles throughout the second half of the race. But when Gray jumped a late restart, ARCA officials penalized him to the tail end of the lead lap with just 11 laps remaining in the race.
“That one hurts,” a despondent Gray said. “I felt like that one got stolen away from us pretty bad. We were fast enough to keep up with (Smith).”
Lynn Haven’s Jake Finch ran in the top-five most of the night in his ARCA debut but saw his night end six laps short of the checkered flag because of a right-front flat.
Smith, who is the defending ARCA East champion, now has five career ARCA victories and continues to look more and more comfortable each time he races at Pensacola’s high banks.
“I managed myself better this year than I did last year,” Smith said. “More seat time and laps at Five Flags really paid off.”
Vores Compact Touring Series: Jennings Outlasts Kaelin, Victorious in Pest Doctor 40
Chris Jennings and Dillon Kaelin engaged in a cat-and-mouse game Saturday afternoon, as the Vores Compact Touring Series returned to Five Flags Speedway.
Jennings, who took the lead with 17 laps complete, was able to protect his advantage against Kaelin and win the Pest Doctor 40. Jennings, a two-time VCTS season champion, was better on the Pensacola high banked straightaways while Kaelin closed the gap in the corners and middle of the turns.
“I tried running the middle grooves to save the tires,” said Jennings, a Richmond, Ind., native. “Finally, we win one of these things! It has been a long time. And it’s an honor to come and race at Five Flags, which is such a legendary short track.”
Jennings got to clean air when then-leader Tom Gosser had his blistering afternoon come to a screeching halt on Lap 18. Gosser, the top qualifier who broke his own track record at Five Flags earlier in the day, spun on the back stretch and failed to finish the race.
“I don’t think we had anything for Tom,” Jennings admitted. “It’s pretty tough just trying to catch him.”
Kaelin and Brent Shreffler finished second and third, respectively.
“I started deep in the field because of issues in practice,” Kaelin explained. “By the time I got all the way up there and kind of figured the track out, my tires were gone.
“About halfway, we said, ‘Let’s give it all we got,’ but we didn’t have quite enough.”