For the third consecutive season, the iconic No. 18 secured an ARCA Menards Series East championship at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Instead of Sammy Smith becoming champion, the honor was bestowed upon 16-year-old William Sawalich from Eden Prairie, Minn. Sawalich had minimal issues picking up where Smith left off the past two years as, entering the finale at Bristol, he tallied three wins, led over 700 laps and never finished outside the top four.
Sawalich knew expectations would be high the moment he climbed into the No. 18 for the first time. There have been times when he felt he could have been better on track, but he comes away from his rookie East Series season satisfied with his championship campaign.
“The season has gone great,” Sawalich said. “I’ve learned a lot, and we’ve had speed everywhere we’ve been. There was only one track where we weren’t in contention for the win, so I’m really proud of [our speed]. I’m learning and the team is learning, but we’re having good success.”
The qualities that propelled Sawalich to an East Series title have long been prevalent during his rise through the developmental ladder.
Sawalich began drawing attention during a breakout 2022 season that saw him dominate in a pro late model with six victories. That efficiency carried over into super late models, where he picked up wins against established veterans like Bubba Pollard and Stephen Nasse.
It was only a matter of time before Sawalich’s consistency earned him an opportunity to compete on the ARCA platform. Joe Gibbs Racing provided that chance with a deal that would see him contest the entire East Series schedule along with a handful of starts in the national ARCA division.
Sawalich was confident the strength of Gibbs’ ARCA program would result in competitive runs right from the beginning. Despite this, Sawalich knew responsibility fell upon him to obtain as much information as possible about the ARCA cars so he could maximize that potential.
“There wasn’t too much of a challenge,” Sawalich said. “Joe Gibbs Racing brings a great ARCA car every time we go to the track. It’s a little different compared to a late model stock or a super late model because the car is way heavier. There are little differences you pick up on, as well, but the big thing for me was learning all the tracks with these cars.”
The first venture for Sawalich on the ARCA platform nearly resulted in a win. He overcame an early spin to lead 94 laps at Phoenix Raceway before getting turned on a late restart by Bradley Erickson while up front, relegating him to 13th.
Sawalich brushed off that disappointment by leading wire-to-wire in the East Series opener at Five Flags Speedway. He followed that stellar performance with three more ARCA victories, which included his first national triumph at Berlin Raceway after passing Jesse Love with two laps remaining.
While Sawalich was thrilled to see his hard work translate into an East Series championship, he still occasionally thinks about moments that could have made his outstanding year even better.
At both Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and Iowa Speedway, Sawalich saw two dominant performances get erased by Luke Fenhaus usurping him on a green-white-checkered. Those two tough defeats kept Fenhaus within striking distance of the East Series title, forcing Sawalich to stay vigilant around Bristol Motor Speedway to wrap up the title.
Sawalich attributed his losses at Nashville and Iowa to inexperience with restarts in the ARCA car. He has been working diligently to refine restart execution since those defeats and is confident he is much better prepared to close out races in overtime moving forward.
Putting together more complete races is Sawalich’s primary goal for 2024 now that he has plenty of track time in ARCA and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. With another full East Series planned with Gibbs next year, Sawalich knows he can be the favorite to win every race he enters.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year that I can use to be better next year,” Sawalich said. “Going back to a lot of these tracks for a second time is also going to help me. I’ll know the characteristics a little better, especially the bigger ones like Dover, which is the only one I think I really need to work on.
“If I can get wins where I didn’t, that will be a win.”
There are still a few races left on Sawalich’s calendar before he starts regrouping for 2024, yet he could not help but reflect positively on the circumstances that led to his bringing home a championship with Gibbs.
Since the early days of his career, Sawalich has been surrounded by a strong support system that includes short-track veterans Dennis and Brandon Setzer, who fielded Sawalich’s Pro Late Model in 2022. The Setzers were among those in attendance at Bristol to watch Sawalich wrap up the East Series title.
Sawalich said he would not be where he is today without the Setzers, his family and so many others who have invested countless hours into making him one of the best NASCAR prospects currently in the garage area. He intends to keep making them proud by being attentive both on and off the track.
“It all really comes down to learning,” Sawalich said. “Just like in late models last year, you have to keep learning, learning, learning. You can never get enough seat time, and therefore you can never do enough learning. I want to take in everything that I’ve learned over the past two years so I can set myself up for a bright future.”
For Sawalich, the best way for him to bolster his already promising outlook in NASCAR is, to his knowledge, to pilot the No. 18 to a fourth consecutive East Series title next year and continue a proud tradition of success.