BY: BRANDON WHITE
The 2022 season was everything for which Sammy Smith hoped.
Not only did Smith claim 10 ARCA victories and his second consecutive ARCA Menards Series East championship, but he also had the opportunity to make his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, where he tallied one top-five and three top-10 finishes in nine starts.
Smith wanted to gain as much experience as possible before the year began, but he said the efficiency he enjoyed across several disciplines has provided him with a confidence boost heading into what he believes will be a busy 2023.
“It’s been an awesome year,” Smith said. “From ARCA to Xfinity and even Super Late Models, I was able to find so much success. The Xfinity Series stuff also went pretty good, even though things could have gone better in some races. I definitely learned a lot and had a lot of fun as well.” Smith knew there would be high expectations placed upon him in the same car that Ty Gibbs had piloted to 12 victories and an ARCA Menards Series title the year before.
Despite that, Smith did not feel any apprehension about replacing Gibbs in the No. 18 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, adding that his time in both Super Late Models and the East Series helped him find a comfort zone against other talented competitors.
Smith had no issues picking up from where Gibbs left off in 2021. Through seven East Series starts, Smith never finished outside the top five, with the General Tire 125 at Dover Motor Speedway being the only race in which he didn’t lead a lap.
In 16 ARCA Menards Series starts, Sammy Smith won six races, led 1,029 laps and only finished outside the top 10 once. (Photo: NASCAR)The status quo for Smith remained in place each time he competed in the main ARCA division. Although he only ran 16 races due to age restrictions, Smith led all drivers in victories with six, tallied a season-high eight poles, recorded the most top-five finishes with 15 and led the most laps at 1,029. Smith’s efforts also resulted in him claiming the Sioux Chief Showdown as well as Kyle Busch Motorsports taking home the owner’s title in the ARCA Menards Series and the East Series.
Now that such a stellar campaign is officially over, Smith can’t help but be grateful toward his crew chief Mark McFarland and everyone at Kyle Busch Motorsports who worked relentlessly to ensure he was the best driver on track every weekend.
“We had fast cars, but I felt like the team was as determined as me to go out and win every week,” Smith said. “We did everything we were supposed to do this year, but I wish we could have won a few more races. I wanted to get some wins on the bigger tracks, but overall, it was a great year.”
Smith believed he improved the most in 2022 when it came to perfecting his race craft, citing his two ARCA starts at Phoenix Raceway as a perfect example of that growth.
When Smith made his first ARCA start of the season at Phoenix, he led a race-high 79 laps but finished third. Conversely, no one could touch Smith in his return to Phoenix in November, as he overcame a mid-race penalty to lead 75 laps and score his final victory on the season.
Kyle Busch Motorsports brought the same setup for both Phoenix races, which put more emphasis on Smith learning from his shortcomings in the Spring so he could put together a near-flawless outing in the West Series finale.
Overcoming and building off mistakes was a theme that Smith said followed him throughout his 2022 season, as he believes he could have added to his win total in both ARCA and the NASCAR Xfinity Series with better execution across several different aspects.
Regardless of what series he competes in next year, Smith still expects to deal with a learning curve as he faces more challenging competition and learns more about himself as a driver.
“In the nine Xfinity Series starts I had, I made a mistake in every single one,” Smith said. “From Road America to Phoenix, I don’t think I made the same mistake twice. Whatever I’m in, I want to try and limit my mistakes so I can keep excelling.”
Smith said that being able to hold his own against drivers like Gibbs, Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier and others in the Xfinity Series has given him every reason to believe his efficiency in ARCA will keep carrying over into NASCAR’s top three divisions.
More competitive fields means that Smith will have to work much harder for victories, but he admitted that all the close calls he experienced in 2022 have mentally prepared him for the challenges in front of him.
“I certainly learned how to lose races,” Smith said. “I obviously expected to win a lot more in ARCA, but this season helped me become a good loser. You’re going to lose more races than you win, so next year will be about taking everything one race at a time so I can put ourselves in contention for wins.”
With confidence on his side, Smith is eager to get back behind the wheel and continue Toyota’s model of consistency going into 2023 and beyond.