Chandler Smith is among NASCAR‘s top prospects. But he was going through, what he felt, was a disappointing rookie season with Kaulig Racing in the 2023 Xfinity Series season.

“I wasn‘t happy with it,” Smith told of his rookie season. “There were a lot of things that got away from our group last year. Some races that got away, some decent finishes that got away. I expected better and wanted better and that‘s what we‘re going to strive for this year.”

Smith scored his elusive first victory at Richmond in the eighth race of the 2023 season. That tallied for his fourth top-five effort to that point. In the remaining 25 races, he matched that same number.

“I knew what I was capable of and I knew what we were capable of last year as a team, especially at certain race tracks,” Smith said. “We just didn‘t deliver.”

Midway through the season, Smith reached out to Joe Gibbs racing, inquiring about joining the Toyota-backed team in 2024. Steve deSouza, JGR‘s EVP NASCAR Xfinity Series/Development, told Smith he couldn‘t speak with him until he was officially free from his Kaulig contract. A couple of months went by and the two sides reconvened. Now, Smith is the driver of the No. 81 Toyota.

“They had some funding together and it was an opportunity,” deSouza said. “He is obviously very talented; Toyota loves him and I think they were disappointed that he got away from him after the truck side. He‘s got a good read on the race car and understands a lot about the race car. The team has gelled well with him, with Jeff Meendering and that whole group.”

Prior to Smith‘s lone season with Kaulig Racing, he was embedded with the Toyota family. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he won seven of the 20 ARCA Menards Series races he competed in for Venturini Motorsports. He led 1,429 laps across those 20 starts.

Toyota also supported Smith‘s owned super late model team before linking up with Kyle Busch Motorsports‘ super late model team. In both 2019 and 2020, he ran partial seasons with KBM in the Craftsman Truck Series, even winning the pole in his series debut at Iowa.

It wasn‘t until the 2021 season that Smith went full time for Toyota. Driving the No. 18 truck for KBM, he opened up the playoffs with a win at Bristol and finished the season in Victory Lane at Phoenix. He took the checkered flag first, three more times in 2022 with KBM. He even ran three races in the Xfinity Series with Sam Hunt Racing.

By 2023, Smith felt like he was ready to move up the proverbial ladder to Xfinity full time. He nearly had a deal completed to compete at JGR, but Toyota had no space for him at the time.

“We mutually parted ways for that one year and I got a learning year for one year with Kaulig Racing,” Smith said. “Now, it‘s back to business, back with my family and we‘re going to win championships together.”

Smith never forgot how much Toyota contributed to his early success on the national scene. That‘s primarily why he wanted to return to Toyota.

“Back from when the whole relationship started, they picked me up when I was pretty much done [racing],” Smith added. “I didn‘t have many options, didn‘t have the funding to move up. I was super late model racing and they said, ‘Hey, we are really interested in you, we want you to be a Toyota driver.‘ They brought me and pulled me through the ranks all the way to the Xfinity level. They always paired me with good people and gave me the right tools to be the best driver that I needed to be and surrounded me with people that made me the best individual and also made me better as a professional race car driver.”

Smith learned plenty on his journey to return to Toyota. He believes those were all viable lessons.

“I don‘t think I would have been able to learn those lessons last year being with the Toyota family,” he noted. “That‘s why I believe everything happens for a reason, but now it‘s time to get back to business and back to work.”

Toyota is happy to have Smith back in the fold, too.

“Seat time is good no matter what, so he‘s had experience of being in an Xfinity car with another team and learned some things there that he didn‘t know,” deSouza said.” Coming to us, hopefully the elementary stuff about the Xfinity Series will be an old-hat to him. Now, it‘s going to be the technology that JGR applies and how he can apply that on the race track.”

So far, so good. Smith is one of two drivers to have top-five and top-10 finishes in all three races to begin the 2024 season. He sits second in the championship standings behind Austin Hill, who already has a pair of victories.

To start the season, Smith made sure to put no expectations on his No. 81 team. Reigning series champion Cole Custer name dropped Smith as one of the top two drivers he felt was a threat of stopping him from repeating as champion in 2024.

“That‘s good to know,” Smith said of Custer‘s remarks.

The series heads to Phoenix this weekend, where Smith had a pair of top-10 finishes in his rookie campaign.

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