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March 8, 2023

Chandler Smith trusting process at Kaulig Racing

Chandler Smith looks onward
James Gilbert
Getty Images

For the past eight seasons, Kaulig Racing has given numerous drivers an opportunity to perform in its NASCAR Xfinity Series stable.

The most recent name to join the list is Chandler Smith.

Smith, at the ripe age of 20, spent the previous two seasons battling for NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championships with Kyle Busch Motorsports. There, he won a handful of races, made it to the Championship 4 last season and defined consistency as he was the only driver to run every lap of the 2022 season.

When he competed in a trio of Xfinity Series races last season for Sam Hunt Racing, he realized he wanted to make the jump to the Xfinity Series as quickly as possible. He believes the higher series suits his driving style better.

“A lot of people that believe in me said I was ready for it, and I felt that I was ready for it myself,” Smith said while comparing the current Xfinity car to a previous generation of ARCA cars. “The rule of thumb, people are going to say, ‘You didn’t win a championship in the trucks, so you shouldn’t go to Xfinity.’ Ty Gibbs won the Xfinity championship last year, and I don’t think he’s ever raced a truck.”

RELATED: AJ Allmendinger returns to Cup full-time with Kaulig Racing

Late last summer, Kaulig Racing approached Smith about taking over its No. 16 entry as AJ Allmendinger was getting the nod to go full-time racing in the Cup Series. Smith had no prior relationship with anybody at Kaulig, though he knew of Daniel Hemric, with the two having similar racing backgrounds in super late models.

A move to Kaulig, however, would mean a departure from Toyota Racing Development, a manufacturer that poured resources into Smith the previous six years.

That move was harder than some might expect.

“I made a lot of good, lifelong friends over there,” Smith said of TRD. “They did a lot for me in my career and put me in opportunities and were able to present things to me that were big for me and for my family.

“It was hard. And it’s still kind of hard because I miss those guys. I love them to death; they were like brothers to me.”

Thinking big picture, Smith thought the move to Chevrolet made sense. As he phrased it, it’s “what is going to be best for us long term for my wife and child.”

It’s no secret that Kaulig Racing struggled against its competition last season. Allmendinger maximized nearly every weekend in 2022, but Hemric went winless, and Landon Cassill missed out on the playoffs in the team’s No. 10 ride. Team president Chris Rice saw the potential in Smith and wanted to give him a shot.

“I talked to Kyle Busch a lot about him and got his thoughts and feelings on him,” Rice said last week. “It’s somebody that I thought would fit with the 16 group and our entire team.

“The kid shows a ton of talent. It seems like he has his life put together. He has a wife, a kid, just all put together. Molding him into an Xfinity or Cup driver changes your life a little bit, but he’s always eager to learn and just trying to make the most of every situation.”

RELATED: Austin Hill out-duels Chandler Smith in closing laps for Xfinity win at Las Vegas

Smith has started the 2023 season strong with a pair of top-five finishes in the first three races. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend, he won the pole and led 118 laps, the most a Kaulig entry has ever been out front for in 434 starts. After three races, Smith leads the series with 119 laps led and impressively sits fourth in points.

“I just told him good job,” Kyle Busch said to a group of reporters after the Las Vegas race, in which he came out of retirement in the Xfinity Series. “He was fast. He did a great job for what he had. I was driving something similar, and I couldn’t make it work like that.”

Compared to the midway point of last season, Rice can see an uptick in performance across the board of Kaulig’s Xfinity program. The previous lack of speed has been found. And he also believes Smith is a good listener.

That makes Smith’s goal of winning at least one race in his rookie campaign look doable. He was less than two miles from getting it done in Sin City before Austin Hill got by for the lead coming to the white flag.

“We’ve got to at least win a race,” Smith said. “I think that’s the bare minimum of what we must do. I’ve matured in the fact of knowing that finishing races and getting all the laps under my belt, not putting myself in a bad situation, I’m going to learn, and so is the team. If I have a car that’s only a fifth-place car, I can put myself in a bad situation and possibly get two more positions, then I’m probably not going to do that.”

MORE: View Smith’s career stats | 2023 Xfinity schedule

Rice believes Smith can win, too, despite knowing there will probably be a tough patch of the season at some point in time. He also assured the rookie that he doesn’t have to win in 2023.

“My expectations for him are to continuously grow, do well and learn,” Rice said. “If he can do that and put all of that together and make the playoffs, then that will be a successful season. I think he can win. It’s going to be a long road to win in your first year in the Xfinity Series, but I do think he can win. I think he has the speed and talent.

“What you’ve seen so far is a light of how good he can be.”