Story By: TADD HAISLOP / ARCA – NEW SMYRNA, FL – With just five laps to go in Monday night’s Jeep Beach 175 at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, a red flag for rain paused the action on the half-mile oval for well over an hour.
And the long wait for the last few laps was worth every second, especially for Max Gutiérrez.
The 18-year-old ARCA Menards Series East rookie from Mexico City, Mexico, passed both Taylor Gray and Sammy Smith on the final stretch of the last lap of the 2021 opener to win a three-wide photo finish. Not a bad way for one to earn his first victory on the ARCA Menards platform.
“The last corner, they were battling for first,” Gutiérrez said after the race of his move to steal the win from Gray and Smith, the latter of whom was attempting to pass the former in Turn 4 before the No. 30 ToughBuilt Ford entered the equation. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it.
“I’m very happy, very proud of the team. That’s a great, great win to start the championship.”
Gutiérrez, who plans to race the full ARCA Menards Series East season for car owner and crew chief Mark Rette, is a six-time Super Kart Champion (2008-13) who won Rookie of the Year honors in Mikel’s NASCAR Truck Series in Mexico in 2017 before capturing the series championship a year later in 2018.
In 2019, he advanced to the NASCAR Mexico Challenge Series, where he won two races in 10 starts while also competing in select Late Model Stock Series events. Last season in the NASCAR Mexico Challenge Series, he won five of his 12 races and earned 10 top-five finishes.
Now he is an ARCA Menards winner — in epic fashion. His margin of victory over Smith on Monday night was 0.046 seconds.
“Just a last lap deal,” said Gray, who finished third Monday night after starting on the General Tire pole. “(Smith) tried to move me and didn’t do it right.”
Smith, though, did not have enough to cross the stripe first after Gutiérrez had stolen the inside lane on the final stretch.
“I can’t believe it,” said Rette, the co-owner of Rette Jones Racing. “I’m so proud of Max and his determination, not to mention the work by everyone on this Rette Jones Racing team. I knew we had a shot if we timed it right and Max did his job when it counted most, and we’re winners again in the ARCA Menards Series East.”
Gutiérrez’s win was the product of the second of two overtime attempts at the end of Monday night’s East Series season-opener, the first of which ended in Turn 1 of the first lap when Mason Diaz spun.
The final lap was the only one Gutiérrez led.
Smith ended up second after leading a race-high 78 laps. He finshed ahead of Gray in third. Mason Diaz and Joey Iest rounded out the top five.
The second race of the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East season also will take place in the state of Florida. The Pensacola 200 at 5 Flags Speedway is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. CT / 6 p.m. ET and will broadcast live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.