Not even two weeks ago, Chandler Smith picked up his second victory of the 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, clinching Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the process. After the race, he took a few pictures, talked to some media members and humbly left the track. After all, it wasn’t his night to celebrate — Ben Rhodes, the night’s third-place finisher, claimed the ’21 series title and, well, did enough celebrating for the both of them.
Even still, Smith wasn’t in the mood for relishing in his accomplishments. In his eyes, he fell short this season.
“I didn’t really celebrate, to be honest,” Smith said Monday during a call with reporters. “Happy I got the Rookie of the Year and happy about the win, but … how do I say this in the most polite way for myself? I expected myself to win these races. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get the wins throughout the season; circumstances weren’t really great throughout the season to be honest with you.
“When we finally were good, something happened. And any time we weren’t good, nothing happened. So, just being honest. Getting those two wins was definitely a confidence boost, because you have those doubters and they still tell you that.”
It’s easy to understand Smith’s high expectations entering the year. For starters, he’s driving the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota — that alone sets a driver up for success. Smith kind of burst onto the national series scene, though, in 16 starts scattered across 2019 and ’20, finishing in the top five in half of them. He looked like a prospect ready to break out in a big way.
With a full-time ride lined up for ’21 in one of the series’ best trucks, it seemed all the puzzle pieces were falling together for Smith to compete for the title while riding his way to several victories.
The first race of the season fell right in line with that as well, with Smith leading a race-high 22 laps at Daytona International Speedway … before a tire issue derailed his day for a ninth-place finish. An eight-race stint with an average finish of 21.875 followed, with Smith only landing in the top 10 once (Richmond Raceway) in that stretch all the way into May.
Things did turn around a bit from there, with Smith compiling seven top 10s and a pair of wins (Bristol Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway) in the remaining 13 races, staying alive in the playoffs until Martinsville Speedway’s Round of 8 elimination race before seeing his title hopes run dry. One race removed from a Championship 4 appearance after a tumultuous regular season isn’t bad, but Smith made no bones about the fact this year didn’t meet his — or his Cup champion boss’ — standards.
“B-minus is what I would grade (our season),” said Smith, who noted his plans for next year are being finalized and should be announced in the next week or so. “Just because, realistically, going into the season and halfway through the season I knew we were capable and had the resources and everything at our disposal to win a championship, but we just weren’t all clicking. We just weren’t consistent as far as showing up at the race track and being good, and when we did show up and were good there were too many mistakes being made. Granted, we had the rookie stripe. So I guess it was acceptable but in my eyes I still didn’t accept that. I’m glad we picked it up the last half of the season and the consistency started coming, the results started to show a little bit. I’m still not happy with the first half of my season to be completely honest with you.”
Smith mentioned the team started to hit its stride toward the later part of the season in a similar fashion to the year before as “me and Danny’s (Stockman, crew chief) relationship got better and he started to trust my input more and I started to trust his input more and the team started clicking.”
Now with his “first full-time year in anything in a very long time” under his belt, a Sunoco Rookie of the Year trophy soon to be added to his collection and a pair of race victories in the record books, Smith is focused on his super late model offseason schedule, which includes the prestigious Snowball Derby, which he placed fourth in last year.
The 19-year-old’s 2021 regular season is going to stick with him all through until ’22, it seems. And if it does, expect him to come out firing in his sophomore campaign and right the wrongs from a season of missed opportunities to be among the title favorites once again just a few short months from now.