By Dustin Albino

Compared to most young drivers, Sammy Smith got his start in racing at a relatively late age. Still, he was just 10 years old when Harold Annett, the father of Xfinity Series retiree Michael Annett, put Smith into a go-kart for the first time. 

The Smiths and Annetts have a tight relationship. Kurt Smith, Sammy‘s father, is Michael‘s business manager. The two sides are, in theory, one big family. 

“I‘ve been with Sammy his whole life,” Annett, who retired at the end of the 2021 season, told, “and my dad was a big part of his whole career. We‘ve been together all along.”

Sammy grew up at the racetrack. Most weeks, his father was on the road with Michael. But when he became a teenager, his focus shifted from watching racecars to wanting to give his best effort at it.

After getting a feel for racing in go-karts around his home state of Iowa, Sammy progressed to legends cars and won 31 races in three years of competition before moving to late models with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Kurt was friends with Slugger Labbe, who works for Toyota Racing Development and got Sammy into the Toyota pipeline of talent. 

Over the last two years, Sammy won consecutive championships in the ARCA Menards East Series, winning eight of the 15 races run. In 16 overall ARCA races last season, he won six times and finished fourth in points despite not competing in seven races. 

Soon after he turned 18 years old, he  had his hand in the Xfinity Series, driving Joe Gibbs Racing‘s all-star No. 18 Toyota. In nine starts last year, he placed a best of third at Watkins Glen International and had three top-10 efforts. 

“It was very beneficial,” Sammy said of running a limited Xfinity schedule in 2022. “I raced quite a bit besides Xfinity. I ran ARCA, super late models, VA2. I think it was good to run a lot of different things, but those nine Xfinity races made me a better racecar driver and being able to carry that from last year to this year and making it less of a transition.”

The biggest takeaways for Sammy last year was the stout competition at the top of the Xfinity Series field. He had to learn the car and went to some new tracks for the first time. It was also the first time he had to make green flag pit stops. 

“Everything from ARCA was 100 times harder and a different style,” Sammy said. “I enjoyed it and thought it was a good transition. I don‘t think it was too hard. I had some mistakes, but I‘ve cleaned those up for the most part and haven‘t made them again.”

While running a limited schedule, Sammy struck up a friendship with Trevor Bayne, who also competed in nine races for JGR in 2022. The duo speak at least once per week and hop on iRacing together for anywhere from a half hour to an hour and chat over Discord about pointers to look out for the weekend ahead. 

“It helps me remember as much as it does him, what I need to talk to him about,” Bayne noted. “We will get on there, just like Richmond and as soon as we start turning laps, it reminds me, ‘OK, he really needs to pay attention to his exit off Turn 2.‘ It helps me process how to help him and we will race around a little bit.”

With Bayne‘s mentorship, which is a new role for the 32-year-old NASCAR on Fox analyst, the key points of emphasis are going to new racetracks. And while the former Daytona 500 winner believes Sammy is doing an impeccable job this season, the biggest room for improvement is with full-race execution. 

“My goal is to try to help him quickly gain experience and use my experiences over the last 10 years to teach him things that it took me maybe two races to learn that he doesn‘t have the luxury of being there a couple of times already,” Bayne said. 

Bayne admits that driving for a fast JGR Toyota helps accelerate the learning process, as all three of its Xfinity teams have won in the opening 11 races of the season. 

Sammy has also leaned on his JGR brethren Ty Gibbs and John Hunter Nemechek for advice during his rookie campaign. And even though he lacks experience compared to the majority of the field, realistically he thought the No. 18 team could do some damage this season. 

“I think this year our goal was to win four to five races,” Sammy said. “I expected to have a win early in the season, like we did, and I was hoping we could have had more good runs.”

Currently, Sammy sits eighth in the championship standings with a trio of top fives and four top-10 finishes. His 13.5 average finish is tied for sixth best in the series, but he did score his first career victory at Phoenix Raceway in March. 

Michael has been just as impressed with Sammy as Bayne is. Especially when he won early in the year. 

“We saw it through his ARCA career that he has everything it takes,” Michael said.

With the win, Smith is all-but locked into the playoffs. But he doesn‘t want the No. 18 team to get off course and make “dumb decisions.” Instead, he wants to race as if he doesn‘t have a win, so that he can try to run up front and improve his confidence level. 

It just so happens that the championship race is also at Phoenix in November. Should the No. 18 team qualify for the title event, he believes it bodes well for himself. 

“If we make the final four, I think it will be tough to beat us,” Sammy said. “I would assume we will go back with that same setup and make adjustments because we weren‘t perfect at the end of the race. But we have a solid baseline to go back there. Hopefully, we can keep making good decisions in the regular season and try to get [playoff] points and once we get to the playoffs, try to be consistent.”

Knowing how much speed the No. 18 team has and how much talent Sammy possesses, Bayne doesn‘t count out the possibility of Sammy‘s shot at winning the championship in his rookie season. 

“Sammy is just going to get better as the year goes on,” he said. “He‘s going to build confidence, learn more what the cars need and they are going to take steps in the right direction.”

The series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, a track Sammy has neer competed on.

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