For anyone who regularly watches the ARCA Menards Series, the jump from there to the NASCAR Xfinity Series must seem like a gigantic leap — not only from the types of tracks and schedule duration but also from a competition standpoint.
But it seems like that is precisely what Sammy Smith will do in 2023.
During last weekend’s Xfinity broadcast, NBC’s Marty Snider said that sources told him that Smith will be driving a Toyota Supra in the Xfinity Series full time for Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
However, is that the right move — or something more calculated?
Smith won the 2021 ARCA Menards Series East championship after snagging three wins and scoring seven top fives in eight races. Two of those top-five finishes came in the three combination races with the ARCA Menards Series. He also finished third in the season finale ARCA Menards Series West race at Phoenix Raceway. It was an impressive year for a young driver who turned 17 in the middle of the season.
Moving into 2022, Smith has captured three wins in the first five of seven races in ARCA East and has a clean sweep of top-five finishes. His main-series ARCA workload has also increased, starting 10 races and scoring victories at Berlin Raceway and Elko Speedway.
On paper, Smith has been nothing short of impressive, but it’s no secret that he has the best equipment in two series where the competition isn’t as stout.
The jump from ARCA to Xfinity will have Smith enter a drastically different environment. The workload load will be higher, as he will start no less than 21 races between ARCA, ARCA East and ARCA West in 2022 (three of which will be combination races between ARCA and ARCA East). The Xfinity Series has 33 races.
He’s experiencing tracks such as Pocono Raceway, Michigan International Speedway and Kansas Speedway through his starts in ARCA alone, which will help in a potential move to Xfinity. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ARCA competition is still at a lower level, as, once again, he only has one finish so far in ARCA outside the top five.
That said, Smith has impressed me in his four Xfinity starts so far in 2022.
Typically, I believe a driver must spend a season or two in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series before venturing to the Xfinity garage. Its schedule is a similar length to an ARCA calendar but has an increased competition level along with longer races. ARCA has around a handful of full-time cars and drivers that are challengers for the championship, and the same goes for ARCA East. The Trucks have 10-15 trucks that will contest for a playoff spot and wins.
But once again, Smith’s Xfinity performances have been impressive despite only having four starts.
Solid performances at Road America and Pocono didn’t yield the results JGR or him were hoping for, but Smith was a contender at Michigan and Watkins Glen International. If it weren’t for the difficulty of passing at Michigan, he probably should’ve had a top 10, maybe even a top five. His car was quick and ran up front in the race’s closing stages but sped on pit road during the final pit cycle.
Last weekend at Watkins Glen, he scored a third-place finish and was one of the best cars on track. He won stage one and routinely was in a position to take the lead of the race. If a restart or two had gone differently, Smith could have joined teammate Ty Gibbs in the first-win-at-a-road-course club.
Speaking of Gibbs, he didn’t race in Truck Series before making his way to his current Xfinity ride. In fact, he still hasn’t made a start in the Trucks. In 2019, he drove in the same ranks as Smith before running the full ARCA East schedule and most of the ARCA schedule in 2020. In 2021, he moved into the main series full time and competed in 18 Xfinity races.
In 2022, Gibbs leads all drivers with five wins through the first 22 races of 2022. Zero time in Trucks doesn’t seem to have held him back.
Another item to consider is if Kyle Busch doesn’t return to Toyota in 2023, let alone Joe Gibbs Racing. A scenario in which Kyle Busch Motorsports isn’t a Toyota team will significantly impact Toyota development drivers’ path toward the Cup Series. Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Christopher Bell and William Byron spent at least one season with KBM before moving up the ladder to Xfinity and are now in the Cup Series.
Do Toyota and JGR believe KBM won’t be Toyota affiliated in 2023? Do they not feel ThorSport Racing or Hattori Racing Enterprises are solid alternatives for their developmental talent to spend time racing?
Smith and Gibbs’ ARCA careers are very similar – almost parallel. But on top of his ARCA stats, is nine races enough time to determine he’s ready for the jump from ARCA to Xfinity? Gibbs had 18 starts, and it was almost an open secret that he’d be racing in the Xfinity Series in 2022 full time by the time the season was over. Plus, Gibbs won twice in his first six starts and ended up winning twice more, and right now, Smith has zero.
If Smith does move to the Xfinity Series full time in 2023, bypassing time in the Truck Series, it will be because he has proven he’s ready. His final five Xfinity starts will be this weekend at Daytona International Speedway followed by Kansas, Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. Daytona will be his first race on a superspeedway, and Kansas shouldn’t be that much of a wake-up call with prior experience at Pocono and Michigan in both ARCA and Xfinity cars. Smith’s made ARCA starts at Bristol and Phoenix before, and with his short track experience, Martinsville shouldn’t be much of a shock.
It’s unlikely Smith does anything in these races, or his remaining ARCA races, to question his readiness for Xfinity. Whether KBM is a Toyota team in 2023 or if ThorSport or HRE becomes the bigwig Toyota team in the Truck Series, Smith’s prowess and consistency in all three ARCA divisions demonstrate that, like Gibbs, he is ready for the giant leap.
The results speak for themselves. A move to Xfinity makes perfect sense.
About the author
Josh Roller is a 2019 graduate of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. While in school, he covered the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. He was an extern for INDYCAR in 2019 and interned with Charlotte Motor Speedway's Communications Department in 2020. Besides writing the Xfinity Breakdown for Frontstretch, he also does a weekly podcast with a friend he met at the 2018 Indy 500, Rob Peeters, called the Racing with Rob and Roller podcast.
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