New beginnings: Sammy Smith improving his future with JR Motorsports

New beginnings: Sammy Smith improving his future with JR Motorsports

When Sammy Smith won in the infancy of his 2023 rookie season at Phoenix Raceway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, all was looking great. He scored five additional top-five finishes with JGR the rest of the year.

Smith jumped directly from the ARCA Menards Racing Series, running nine races in the Xfinity Series in 2022 to gain experience for what was to come in 2023. His rookie campaign, however, was eye-opening.

“I learned a lot last year,” Smith told of his rookie season. “Getting to new tracks for the first time — and I was with a new team last year, too. I think that was a combination of both, and every time we went back to a track for the second time, I feel like we performed better and got the car better. I think I was more prepared going there for the second time.”

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Smith was learning rapidly, retaining information like a fire hose. He struggled during the summer months, entering the postseason with seven consecutive finishes of 17th or worse, including a trio of DNFs.

During a playoff surge that nearly saw Smith win his way into the Championship 4 at Martinsville Speedway, JR Motorsports announced he would hop over to the Chevrolet camp for the 2024 season to replace Josh Berry in the No. 8 car. That ended Smith‘s four-year run with Toyota.

Smith believed a change of scenery was needed because “it clearly wasn‘t working” with JGR.

“A lot of different factors that played into mind of moving over here to JRM and Chevy,” Smith said. “Minus Josh, even last year, Justin [Allgaier] and Sam [Mayer] won a lot of races. Every year, [JR Motorsports] proved to win races. We have a new group around us with Adam Wall (crew chief) and a mixture of guys from last year and some new guys. I have a new spotter for myself.

“Everything is new, and it‘s been good so far, so I‘m looking forward to continuing it on. There were a lot of things for my future that were better. I wouldn‘t pinpoint it as just not working, it was just a combination of a lot of things.”

Smith‘s entry into the JRM fold also reunited the team with familiar sponsors Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt, which were a part of the team for five seasons with Michael Annett. Annett has mentored Smith over the years, with his late father Harold helping Smith start his racing career.

“It was really special to be able to welcome Sammy and everyone from Pilot Flying J, TMC and Allstate Peterbilt back to the JRM family,” Kelley Earnhardt Miller, CEO of JR Motorsports, provided in a statement. “We built a great relationship with them going back to when we had Michael here, and they were vital to allowing us to become a four-car operation. To have them return this season is something that we are all extremely proud of, and we can’t wait to see what success lies ahead for Sammy and the entire No. 8 team.”

Smith has leaned on Annett in the past for tidbits and information. But largely, Annett has stayed out of the way and let Smith learn on the fly.

“If I had a little more success, he probably would have leaned on me more,” Annett said of Smith in an interview during the 2023 season. “He‘s got a bunch of good people around him that he can lean on that have had great success with where they are and he‘s shown that.

“He’s shown he‘s got what it takes, and he‘s going to get it done.”

Seeing how much success JRM has had in recent years — including a team record 15 wins in 2022, followed by an eight-win season last year — Smith expects to run up front early and often. He‘s also been paired with Wall, who previously served as an engineer for Kyle Larson‘s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team in the Cup Series.

“I think the goal every weekend is to go out and win, and we want to do that, but it takes a lot more to get to that goal with processes that you have to do during the week,” Smith added. “For us, it‘s a lot different because we don‘t really know each other, and it makes it a lot tougher to find that balance of what I need when we show up to the track week in and week out.”

Improvements are visible through the first five events in 2024. Smith is tied with Brandon Jones for the most top 10s within the team (three), while veteran drivers Justin Allgaier and Sam Mayer combine to have three such results. Through the first five races in 2023, Smith‘s lone top 10 was the Phoenix victory.

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Smith believes it will be building a process before he finds Victory Lane, but he has high expectations for his sophomore season. Smith‘s next opportunity to build on that process will come at Richmond Raceway on March 30 (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“As much as we wish we could go out and win right away, it‘s probably not going to be like that,” Smith said. “We just have to keep working and I feel like that‘s something we can go do, we just have to get into a rhythm.”