Toyota prospect Sammy Smith confident heading into Xfinity debut

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Toyota prospect Sammy Smith confident heading into Xfinity debut
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Over the years, Toyota Racing has had multiple young, talented prospects go through its pipeline. Next in line is Sammy Smith.

Smith currently leads the ARCA Menards Series East racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports, capturing three checkered flags in five races in 2022. He‘s led 494 of 875 laps (56.5%) and hasn‘t finished worse than fifth.

This year, he‘s also ran a partial ARCA Menards Series schedule, dominating at Elko last weekend by leading 233 of 250 laps. In five starts, he hasn‘t finished worse than third.

“It‘s been a really good season so far,” Smith told NASCAR.com last week.

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This weekend at Road America will be a new challenge for Smith, an 18-year-old from Iowa. He will make his Xfinity Series debut, driving the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, marking the first of eight races Smith has on the docket in Xfinity this season, with the remaining races coming at Pocono, Michigan, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix.

Admittedly, Smith’s opportunity in the Xfinity Series has been in the works for some time. A conversation about Smith‘s progression between Steve Desouza, executive vice president of JGR‘s Xfinity Series program, and Kurt Smith (Sammy‘s father), president of Rising Star Management Group, led to the initial thought of running Smith in Xfinity races someday.

“We‘ve watched Sammy progress, and as he approached the age allowing him to race in the ARCA East Series, we developed a plan for him,” Desouza said.

Bringing sponsorship to the table certainly helps Smith‘s case of getting Xfinity starts soon after turning 18 years old in early June. He brings to the table former sponsors of Michael Annett: Pilot Flying J and TMC Transportation, which have been with Smith since he raced go karts at 8 years old. Allstate Peterbilt Group will also be sponsoring the No. 18 car.

Up until this month, Smith couldn‘t compete on tracks bigger than 1 mile in length due to age. He was counting down the days until he turned 18.

“I get to run the big tracks and hopefully continue to learn and work on my craft to try and be a good race car driver,” Smith said. “I feel like I‘m decent on the short tracks because that‘s what I grew up doing. I have a lot of confidence in those, but it‘s going to be about getting used to the big tracks and the Xfinity car. Hopefully, we can run all the laps and get a win out of the eight races.”

Driving for JGR entails having some of the best equipment in the Xfinity Series on a weekly basis. Realistically, Smith knows there will be a learning curve, but isn‘t ruling out a victory. After all, his JGR teammate Ty Gibbs shocked everyone in February 2021 when he won in his first Xfinity start at the Daytona road course.

Certainly, Smith has high expectations for himself and the No. 18 team, which he‘s gotten to know over the last years with the ARCA and Xfinity cars coming from the same race shop.

“My goals are no different than they are now: Go out and try to lead laps, win poles, win races and do the best I can do,” he said. “I know the team will be behind me with Jason Ratcliff and the whole [No.] 18 group has been good this year and I know will bring fast race cars to the track.”

While Desouza won‘t go as far as saying he expects Smith to win, he does have high expectations for the young driver, allowing him to develop in NASCAR‘s second-highest division.

“Run all the laps, learn these cars, [communicate] with your team, take what the car will give you, and improve each time he is in the car,” Desouza said.

Leading up to his series debut, Smith has sought advice from 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who has driven the No. 18 car six times in 2022. He‘s also worn out the simulator, provided by Toyota Racing Development.

Up until this year, Smith had little road racing experience. But working with Scott Lagasse in a TA2 car has given him some additional laps, particularly at the famed Wisconsin road course that he‘ll see this weekend.

The final three races of the year for Smith at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix are familiar territory. He anticipates being most comfortable on the shorter tracks, which is where his racing success has come on.

“I‘m going to be learning these eight races in the Xfinity Series,” Smith said. “The team is capable of winning, I‘m capable of winning; I have to learn a lot and be competitive. Being able to adapt will be the biggest thing, and I don‘t think it‘s going to be easy by any means. I‘ve got a good mindset, so hopefully we‘ll go run well.”

The eight starts also serve as another purpose, as Smith surveys the landscape for 2023. Not knowing what he’ll be driving or where he will be competing in 2023, this is a perfect opportunity.

“I think every time you step into a race car you‘re getting auditioned,” he said. “You‘re only as good as your last race, and these eight races are going to be tough. I take it one race at a time, and we‘ll take it when it comes to the present.”

Through 15 races, the No. 18 team ranks 10th in the owners standings, earning seven top-10 finishes.

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