Race Weekend Central

Will Bubba Pollard Win the ARCA East Race at Five Flags?

The 38th season of the ARCA Menards East Series will begin on Saturday, March 23 at Five Flags Speedway. The 0.5-mile short track, famous for hosting the Snowball Derby in December, will host the East field for the seventh time.

The 18 drivers entered for the 150-lap race are the most entered at Five Flags since the 2020 edition. Of those 18, one driver stands out for his short track prowess.

Yep, Bubba Pollard will pilot the No. 1 Chevrolet for longtime team owner James Finch. Short track fans know Pollard for his successes, which most recently included his victory in the 2024 Rattler 250 at South Alabama Speedway. The Pensacola 150 will be Pollard’s East series debut; he already has five starts in the ARCA Menards Series.

See also
Entry List: 2024 Pensacola 150

Pollard has won at numerous racetracks; can he win the East race?

“Yes, I promise you he’ll be a contender in all three of them,” Five Flags track co-owner and general manager Tim Bryant told Frontstretch.

While Pollard has never won the Derby, coming oh-so-close in 2023, he’s still been successful at the track. He is a multi-time Blizzard Series champion, a super late model four-race series leading into the Snowball Derby. He has won over 30 races at Five Flags too.

Bryant wouldn’t name Pollard the favorite to win the East race though. Instead, Bryant said two others are the top two to be reckoned with on Saturday night.

Gio Ruggiero, certainly, is a contender no matter what he drives,” Bryant said. “And of course, he’s going to be in a Venturini Motorsports car here so we know he’ll be a contender. But I fully believe the favorite for the ARCA race is William Sawalich. He is coming off an ARCA win at Phoenix Raceway and he’s driving a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, so he’s going to be the guy with a target on his back.”

Sawalich is the defending East winner at Five Flags, his first victory en route to the 2023 series championship. He outdueled Ruggiero at Phoenix too; they finished 1-2, respectively. Ruggiero also finished third in the 2023 Snowball Derby.

Ruggiero will challenge Sawalich for the 2024 East crown, and Ruggiero has been successful in late models too. Among his achievements is the victory in the 2023 Winchester 400, another historic short track race.

Ruggiero is piloting the No. 20 for VMS, the entry that finished third in the ’23 Five Flags East event. Who drove it that day? The son of Pollard’s team owner, Jake Finch, who will drive the No. 55 VMS Toyota. Bryant is confident Finch will be one of the contenders on Saturday night.

“He won a championship here in our Outlaw division before he moved to the late model ranks,” Bryant added. “He’s going to be doing double duty as is Bubba, running both the ARCA East race, where Finch finished third last year, and then the super late model race on Sunday.”

In the ’23 East race at Five Flags, Luke Fenhaus gave Pinnacle Racing Group a runner-up finish in the team’s debut. This year, Connor Zilisch is driving the No. 28 Chevrolet full time in the East. Zilisch boasts an impressive resume too.

In 2024 alone, Zilisch won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. Zilisch will have a busy day on Saturday; he’s making his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut at Circuit of the Americas. He’ll miss practice and qualifying at Five Flags, but his No. 28 will be in familiar hands.

“I’ve done a bunch of preparation to be ready for both races,” Zilisch told ARCA Racing. “I’m ready to make the most of the opportunity with the ARCA car and the truck. Pensacola is going to be the biggest thing, as I’m showing up to the track without practice or qualifying and with no experience in an ARCA car on an oval. There’s going to be a lot of new stuff for me, but I’m doing everything I can to be ready for it.”

In addition to those four drivers, Bryant noted two others who will be fast on Saturday: Hunter Wright and Tyler Scofield. Wright will make his series debut in the No. 95 MAN Motorsports Toyota. Wright won the 2024 World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing Pro Late Model championship at fellow Florida short track New Smyrna Speedway.

“Hunter has yet to find victory lane here at Pensacola, but he’s been a contender, mostly in the pro late model ranks with a few spot visits in the super late models,” Bryant said. “Always runs really well. So, this is his maiden voyage into the ARCA East series here and at least this is a track he is familiar with, so I’m anticipating a good run by Hunter.”

Scofield is making his series debut; his father Jeff Scofield debuted in the national series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, but got caught up in an early race wreck, leaving him with a 36th-place DNF.

“Tyler has not raced here at Five Flags,” Bryant said. “His dad Jeff has raced here and is a great racer to this day. They’re central Florida guys and they certainly know how to get the job done, that’s for sure.”

The Snowball Derby has a mix of NASCAR drivers, such as 2023 victor Ty Majeski, ARCA drivers such as Ruggiero and late model talents such as Pollard.

“We love seeing our young drivers who come through who are on a journey to get to the higher levels,” Bryant said. “And certainly, we’re seeing that with guys coming from late models into the ARCA East series. At the same time, we cherish our veterans who are just short track fans. This weekend we certainly have a good mixture of both and that’s the way we like it.”

See also
ARCA Power Rankings: Greg Van Alst Is the New Points Leader

On Sunday, the day after the East race, the ASA Stars National Tour will contest the second event of its season at Five Flags. Ruggiero and Finch are both pulling double duty. Pollard will run a tripleheader this weekend. He’s racing in the Crown Stock race, which precedes the East race, as well as the East and ASA races.

If Pollard sweeps the weekend, he’ll win $5,000 and one fan will win $1,000.

“Certainly, he can drive anything and do well,” Bryant said. “I think he’s going to be a contender.”

In the six East races and the six national races in Pensacola, only twice has the winner started outside the top five; all victors have started inside the top 10. Experience at the racetrack is not a prerequisite for victory according to Bryant, but it is always beneficial.

“Experience on any track certainly is an advantage for a driver,” Bryant said. “He is more familiar with the track and characteristics of it. People will tell you Five Flags is a little on the fickle side. Even Bubba, who probably has more laps here than anyone who will be in the race.

“The track changes frequently. With the weather, and I don’t know the reasons why, if we’re built on an Indian burial ground or whatever, but the racetrack does have some characteristics that are different. From that standpoint, I don’t know that is that big of an advantage for a guy who’s raced here vs. a guy who hasn’t.”

My prediction: Pollard wins the Pensacola 150 on Saturday night.

You can watch the race live on Saturday, March 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET on FloRacing.

About the author

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

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