Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: This Is Just the Beginning for Chandler Smith

“The ceiling is the roof.”

If you are a University of North Carolina basketball fan (or if you were a Duke fan on that unfortunate night for the Blue Devils) you might remember Michael Jordan giving the UNC football team this adage during halftime of the 2017 UNC-Duke game.

As head-scratching as it was at the time, he was on the right track.

Jordan is the co-owner of 23XI racing, one of three Toyota teams in the NASCAR Cup Series. And in Toyota’s pipeline, there lies a star who would fall under the umbrella of Jordan’s phrase.

That would be Chandler Smith, who is in his second NASCAR Xfinity Series season and first with Joe Gibbs Racing.

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Chandler Smith Stays Hot at Richmond, Joey Gase Loses His Cool

The 21-year-old is coming off his second win in three weeks after triumphing in the ToyotaCare 250, which was also just the sixth race on the young season. After leading 16 laps previously, he took the lead with 60 laps to go, never looking back en route to a margin of victory of nearly 4.5-seconds over Aric Almirola.

Through those six events, Smith is batting 1.000 on top 10s, finishing no worse than eighth. He has also secured five top fives, with both the top five and top 10 stats tying Austin Hill for the most in the series. Additionally, he has led 239 laps already after leading a total of 318 in 2023.

The point being made here is Smith is good … really good.

Of course, that has been no secret since his first full-time season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2021. Between 2021 and 2022 with Kyle Busch Motorsports, Smith won five races and qualified for the Championship 4 in 2022.

When KBM switched to Chevrolet from Toyota last season, Smith took his talents to Kaulig Racing, a team who had stacked their trophy case in the series before then. However, the team’s veteran driver AJ Allmendinger had moved up to the NASCAR Cup Series, leaving the Xfinity program at a bit of a crossroads.

Despite this, it didn’t take long for Smith to look like he belonged. He got his first win in the seventh race of the season at none other than Richmond, leading a dominant 83 laps that day.

That win propelled Smith to a stout rookie season, and it unearthed a quality that makes him one of the top prospects in NASCAR: competing with veteran teammates.

At Kaulig, Smith was teammates with 2021 series champion Daniel Hemric, who is in one of Kaulig’s Cup cars. While Hemric matched or bested Smith on several statistics, the key ones went in Smith’s favor. He earned eight top fives to Hemric’s six, three poles to Hemric’s zero, and bested Hemric’s 66 circuits led with his 318. And while Smith earned that win at Richmond, his veteran teammate did not reach victory lane. It’s no disrespect to Hemric, who had a respectable season, but Smith was seen up front more often between the two.

The Talking Rock, Ga., native followed a similar act he had performed the previous season at KBM. During the 2022 season, he was alongside John Hunter Nemechek, a driver who led the Truck Series in wins in 2021 and is also a Cup driver now with Legacy Motor Club. However, Smith somewhat outperformed another experienced teammate there, earning more wins, top 10s and laps led than Nemechek in 2022. He also posted a better average finish by three positions and made the Championship 4, which Nemechek did not do.

Let’s not forget that the young talent made three Cup starts last season with Kaulig, either. In those starts, he finished 17th, 15th and 11th to combine for a 14.3 average finish. While it was only three races, that bested the average finish of any Kaulig drivers who had made Cup starts the previous two seasons with the team.

Now, Smith is back where it all started for him at Toyota. And if his performance is remotely close to what he has unpacked in the first six races, this could be his title to lose, though the current playoff format makes that easier said than done.

So what does a Cup owner see when looking at Smith’s resume? An ability to win multiple races on diverse track types, able to push veteran teammates, and a respectable driving etiquette. But what Smith also brings is a personality that he is not afraid to express, a quality that NASCAR is starving for in its drivers.

A prime example came at Richmond in his winner’s press conference when he was shown a video of Joey Gase throwing his bumper at Dawson Cram. No matter which side of the fence you are on concerning that matter, Smith made his positioning very clear.

“I may get bashed for saying this, but I am all for drivers showing their emotions and letting them have at it,” Smith said in the presser. “10, 15 years ago them jokers were fighting on pit road and there weren’t any fines. I’ll probably get a fine for saying this right now.”

NASCAR needs another young star who is genuine on and off track, and Smith has embodied that so far. From personal experience, he’s the same guy who asked media members where the closest Buffalo Wild Wings was following his Truck win at Richmond in 2022.

See also
Bubba Pollard Discusses JRM Deal, Xfinity Debut & Adapting from Late Models

Every driver has something they can improve and hone their skills on, and for Smith, that would be road courses. He has yet to finish better than fifth on the rights and lefts of NASCAR in his young career.

Still, his early success on ovals (particularly tracks like Richmond and Phoenix) along with quick adaptability make him a coveted driver for any owner currently.

The Toyota driver left Kaulig Racing after he received a buyout from a three-year contract. Ideally, the move would lead to a Cup opportunity down the road. But where exactly would that be?

Potential openings could clear in the near future. JGR Cup driver Martin Truex Jr. is the oldest full-time driver at the premier level at the age of 43, and retirement questions have become a perennial establishment the past couple of seasons. Indications have certainly been that Truex is in his final seasons, but a lot of questions remain about when. The only person who knows when he wants to retire is Truex himself.

Right on his heels in the age department is his teammate, Denny Hamlin, who is also 43. Hamlin feels like someone who could continue to compete for wins for several more years, but wins are savored much more when one hits their 40s.

Should one of those rides open up in the next year or two, Smith should be on the short list. Or perhaps JGR taps someone like 23XI driver Tyler Reddick to move over to the organization, opening up a spot at Hamlin and Jordan’s team.

There are a lot of i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed between now and then, but if Smith continues to go on the tear he has displayed to open 2024, he could force the gates wide open those questions sooner rather than later.

At the Xfinity level, Smith has asserted himself as the title favorite in the early going. A lot can change between now and November, but JGR has to like their odds with the No. 81 team. A year ago, Nemechek racked up seven wins to lead the series, but he came up empty of the title.

The win mark is very achievable for Smith at this rate, and you better believe he will be in the mix to deliver Coach Gibbs his third title in four years.

How far can he go? At this point, the sky is the limit.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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