By: Tadd Haislop
In February, when Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sammy Smith would pilot the No. 18 Engine Ice Toyota in the ARCA Menards Series East in 2021, the plan was for the Johnston, Iowa, native to run a part-time schedule.
Then Smith earned two wins in his first three East Series starts, at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, later that month and at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in May. He would have won all three races to open the season had Max Gutiérrez not stolen the checkered flag in the opener at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway.
The decision was made to allow Smith to run a complete, eight-race East Series schedule and compete for a championship.
The decision was a good one.
Smith, who turned 17 in June, won the ARCA Menards Series East championship in his rookie season with relative ease. Thanks to the 24-point lead he built over second-place Daniel Dye entering the East Series season finale, Smith needed to finish 19th or better at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the title. He finished second in the race to JGR teammate Ty Gibbs, leaving Smith as the 2021 East Series champion by a 34-point margin over Dye.
Few if anybody at JGR were surprised by Smith’s immediate success on the ARCA Menards platform given the resume he carried into the organization.
Smith arrived on the East Series scene in 2021 as an accomplished driver in the lower divisions of stock car racing. He had picked up 31 victories at eight different tracks over three years competing in Legend Cars. In 2018, he won the championship at Texas Motor Speedway’s Big Top Nationals, and he just missed out on a national championship with a season that included 23 wins and a 3.9-place average finish in 65 starts.
In 2019, Smith won a Pro Late Model title in the World Series of Asphalt at New Smyrna, as well as the Governor’s Cup. In 2020, he emerged victorious on the first night of World Series of Asphalt racing driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
All of which paved the way for Smith’s debut in the East Series, which took place at, naturally, New Smyrna.
Smith entered the final corner of the last lap of his ARCA Menards debut running second to Taylor Gray. Smith used his bumper in an attempt at a winning move, but his contact with Gray allowed Gutiérrez to pass both in one of the most dramatic finishes of the 2021 season.
They way Smith responded to such a crushing defeat in the opener ultimately led to his championship.
A couple weeks after the New Smyrna race, Smith led 145 of 200 laps from the pole at 5 Flags to pick up his first win. More than two months later, when the East Series returned to action at the Nashville Fairgrounds in May, Smith maintained his momentum with a victory after leading 103 of 200 laps.
After a fourth-place run at Dover International Speedway later in May — a race Ty Gibbs won — Smith returned to Victory Lane in the East Series with his win at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina. He led 70 of 200 laps to pick up his third win in four starts.
That victory in June was Smith’s last of the season, but he ended the schedule on high notes with a fifth-place run at the Milwaukee Mile and a second-place effort at Bristol, both combination events with the ARCA Menards Series.
If not for his 18th-place run at Iowa Speedway in July — the result of a cut tire in another combo event with the ARCA Menards Series — Smith might have logged top-five finishes in all eight East Series races in 2021. Ironically, Smith’s home track produced his only finish outside the top five all season.
In total, Smith led 396 East Series laps in 2021, easily the most among those who started all eight events. His average finish in the East Series was 4.3, also a clear No. 1 among series regulars. He completed 1,359 of 1,412 possible laps; only Gutiérrez (1,404) and Dye (1,394) completed more.
Smith also saw his first General Tire Pole Award arrive at 5 Flags ahead of his second start in the series. He would go on to start on the front row in three more races (Nashville, Milwaukee and Bristol).
So yes, the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East season was everything for which Smith and Joe Gibbs Racing had hoped. After all, including Ty Gibbs’ four victories — three of which came in combo events with the ARCA Menards Series — a JGR driver won seven of the eight East Series races in 2021.
And, as noted, the organization was a nose away in the opener from making it a clean sweep of the series for the year.
Smith for his part delivered a championship. That’ll work nicely, too.