ARCA: Giovanni Ruggiero Scores ARCA East Victory at Five-Flags Speedway

The ARCA Menards Series East held its season opener Saturday at Five-Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. The entry list featured 16 drivers with names such as Bubba Pollard, Connor Zilisch, William Sawalich, and Giovanni Ruggiero.

Jake Finch paced practice, posting a lap of 17.479s / 102.981 mph in the No. 55 Phoenix Toyota entry. William Sawalich, Bubba Pollard, Giovanni Ruggiero, and Hunter Wright sat top five.

Despite sitting second in practice, ‌William Sawalich won the pole for the East opener, posting a lap of 17.126s / 105.103 mph. Finch sat second, followed by Luke Fenhaus filling in for Connor Zilisch traveling to Five-Flags Speedway from COTA, Giovanni Ruggiero, and Bubba Pollard.

Shortly after 8:35 p.m. ET, the race went green, with Sawalich and Finch starting on the front row.

Zilisch started at the rear for a driver change after practice and qualifying.

On lap 34, with Sawalich cruising upfront as the leader, Zachary Tinkle, and Connor Zilisch made contact ‌in turn two to bring out the opening caution. This bunched the field up for the restart, with Sawalich and Ruggiero on the front row. The green waved seven circuits later at lap 41.

Sawalich again quickly cleared for the lead and cruised as the leader to the halfway break at lap 75. During this period, Zilisch began having a fuel pressure issue with his No. 28 car, causing him to slow for a lap or so. Eventually, Zilisch went a lap down while Sawalich passed Hunter Wright—giving Wright the free pass.

Ruggiero, Pollard, Wright, and Zilisch rounded out the top five at the break.

With 69 to go at lap 81, the field received the green flag.

Ruggiero restarted on the outside and pinned the No. 18 Toyota of Sawalich down onto the bottom out of turn two. This gave the No. 20 of Ruggiero momentum on the top to clear Sawalich for the lead.

The two had an accordion effect for the remaining laps as Sawalich gained and lost ground to the leader. Ultimately, the race remained green with Ruggiero taking the checkered for his first East victory with Sawalich finishing second.

“Can’t thank Venturini Motorsports enough,” said Ruggiero after the race in victory lane. “We had a really great car tonight. I’m glad we won here, as it’s been a great track for me.”

Pollard finishes third in his ARCA Menards Series East debut, followed by Zillisch, and Wright in the top five.

Pollard takes the momentum into his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut next weekend at Richmond Raceway.

“It was a long day. We had fun! Hopefully, we can take a lot of what we did tonight and just apply it to next week,” said Pollard. “That was the biggest thing. Is just getting some experience and some seat time. There’s so much different than what I’m used to.”

Mike Basham, Jake Finch, Zachary Tinkle, D.L. Wilson and Cody Dennison rounded out the top 10 finishers. 

The series heads next to Dover for the General Tire 150 combo event with the ARCA Menards Series on April 26th – live on FS1.

Brett Winningham
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