ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – On the eve of his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Sammy Smith was grounded.
Minutes after he qualified his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota eighth for Saturday’s (July 2) race at Road America, the 18-year-old driver didn’t show much exuberance or use any superlatives as the sun slowly set on the track’s garage area.
His answers about the biggest racing weekend of his career so far were … by the book.
“I feel good, I wish we could have qualified a little bit better,” Smith told Frontstretch. “Looking at it, it was tough getting up to speed fast. (Going to try) to run up front, but overall it was good. Looking forward to tomorrow.”
This weekend marks the first of eight scheduled Xfinity starts for the native of Johnston, Iowa. He gets the test run while also competing full-time in the ARCA Menards Series East, where he’s won three of the first five races of the season.
But nowhere on the ARCA East circuit – where he is the defending champion – is there a 4-mile road course like Road America.
His reaction when he found out his first series start would be on the longest track in NASCAR?
“Just prepare, it’s a tough road course,” Smith said. “There’s a lot to learn on these, coming to a different car it’s even tougher. It’ll be tough, but looking forward to it.”
Compared to ARCA, Smith said his initial foray into Xfinity felt “way different.”
“Same thing, less downforce, but fairly close transmission, brakes feel close,” Smith said. “But overall excited.”
When he took to the track for the first time in the Xfinity car – after taking part in Trans-Am practice earlier in the afternoon – Smith said he “just treat(ed) it like no other different practice and was ready to go.”
Frontstretch observed that he seemed very “at ease” about the weekend.
“Yeah, I feel good about it,” Smith said. “I’m gonna go home tonight and study hard and try to get better for tomorrow.”
Smith wasn’t budging. He didn’t have much to say or he didn’t want to give anything away.
Luckily, minutes earlier, Frontstretch had asked JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier what kind of advice he’d have for Smith in his first start.
The question was asked not knowing Allgaier is actually close with Smith, with their relationship tied to his former JR Motorsports teammate, Michael Annett, who is “ultra-close” to Smith (Pilot / Flying J, which sponsored Annett for most of his NASCAR career, also sponsors Smith).
“Sammy’s dad is like family to Michael and his dad, Kurt, has been a part of Michael’s career since he started and I’ve watched Sammy grow up, kind of through the lens I guess if you will of watching him race or what not,” Allgaier said. “So I’ve known Sammy for a long time. Super happy for me. It’s a great opportunity.”
Allgaier talked at length with Smith before he got in the No. 18 for his first practice session.
“My biggest piece of advice to him was just find your markers and get comfortable,” Allgaier said. “He’s obviously ultra-talented. And I told him, I said ‘you’re beyond talented. But this is going to drive a lot different than an ARCA car or a Trans-Am car here. You’re gonna have to kind of take what the race will give you.'”
Allgaier, who is in his 12th full-time season in the Xfinity Series, made an observation about young racecar drivers that seemed born from personal experience on some level.
“I think the worst mistake (is) that a lot of these younger racers that are coming up are kind of told is they have to perform now,” Allgaier said. “‘You got to win in your debut or you’re going to be out.’ That’s really not the case. He’s proven time and time again. He’s plenty talented enough to be competitive at this level. And I think given the right opportunities and the right race tracks he’ll do that. Whether he does that tomorrow or not, who knows? But if he does, it wouldn’t surprise me and if he doesn’t, hopefully it’s a good learning experience.”
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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