DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — After her son Garrett raced to a career-high fifth-place finish in Saturday’s quintuple-overtime Xfinity race, Bethanie Smithley could not contain her emotions.
Memories flashed to when he wanted to race even though neither parent knew anything about the sport other than what they viewed from the stands. Then there was the sign that what they were doing was the right thing. And the memories of how pillow cushions helped Garrett’s racing career.
All that was before Garrett joined JD Motorsports, an underfunded team that is at the track each weekend but not often noticed.
He overcame an early spin and avoided the late crashes to collect his third career Xfinity top-10 finish, spurring a family celebration on pit road afterward.
“It’s the satisfaction that going out on a limb for your childwhen you don’t necessarily want to go out there … is worth it,’’ Bethanie said between tears.
“It’s the payback. It’s the affirmation that we made the right decision and that all the sacrifices we made, the family vacations we didn’t take, it was worth it.’’
Garrett Smithley, a 25-year-old from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, pointed to the Daytona International Speedway stands and about where he and his family sat 12 years ago.
A passion grew.
He started racing in 2007 in Bandolero cars.
“I had to learn to tow a race trailer,’’ Bethanie Smithley said.
“I had to learn how to be crew chief,’’ said RK Smithley, Garrett’s dad.
One of the requests the family made before buying a Bandolero car was that they be showed how to set it up.
“We could have never dreamed this would turn into a profession,’’ Bethanie said. “We thought it would be a short-term hobby. Every time he’s moved forward there’s just been some provision that I felt was divine providence for him to be a race car driver.’’
The first time Garrett went to test a Legends car, they pulled up to the shop. When Bethanie opened the truck door to exit, Bill Elliott stood 2 feet away.
“He was one of our favorite NASCAR drivers,’’ she said. “To me that was kind of a sign that it’s going to be OK that your son wants to go racing. All along the right person has come along at the right time to help him move forward.’’
While driving a No. 43 Legends car, Garrett’s talent was spotted and he was invited to a Richard Petty Driver Search.
Former Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope saw Garrett at a test, leading to Garrett’s ARCA debut in 2014. He shared a car at the test with another driver, who was much bigger. Garrett’s parents brought pillows from their hotel couch so he could fit in the seat.
The following year, Garrett made his Camping World Truck Series debut with the Mittler Brothers, the same team Carl Edwards made his series debut with in 2002. Garrett is in his third season with JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“Johnny went on a limb,’’ Garrett said. “He had some better deals. He said I really want you to drive my 0 car.’’
As often happens the night before the first race of the season, Garrett couldn’t sleep Friday. He posted a picture on Twitter after midnight of the lit Daytona stands with the note: “Never taking this for granted.’’
“You come so close to not making it and not making it and not making it … this feels really special,’’ Garrett said.
Enough to make a mother cry.
“Along the way somebody has always noticed that talent,’’ Bethanie said. “I fully believe it will lead to him being in Cup one day. I don’t know how long.
“I also say because he’s done so well at these superspeedways, I think one of these days he’ll be in Victory Lane, although right now it feels like we’re there.’’
Instead, she and RK stood behind pit wall. The sun faded behind the stands and sweepers cleaned pit road. A few people pushed team pit boxes into position to be loaded onto trucks and head to the next race. RK and Bethanie were alone.
As they walked away, she turned to one person working on the pit boxes that she knew.
“I’m so excited to be back with JD Motorsports with Gary Keller this season,” Smithley said in a statement from the team. “We’ve had two very successful seasons together and to be given the opportunity to continue to build on that is something I do not take for granted.
“Each and every year JD Motorsports with Gary Keller grows and improves. This offseason has been an extremely strong one for this organization, and I knew that if the opportunity presented itself to return, I wouldn’t pass it up. I can’t thank Johnny Davis and Gary Keller enough for the opportunities they have given me and this entire team for all that they do. We’re a family, and we’re in this together. It will be awesome to work with Ross once again, as well as Vinnie and Matt this season.”
Smithley finished 21st in the points last season. He finished a season-best eighth in the season opener last year at Daytona International Speedway.
The motto that drives Garrett Smithley‘s career is summed up by a decal on the dashboard of every car he races:
“Patience, never give up.”
It’s guided the 25-year-old driver for the last decade since he began driving a Bandolero in Peach Tree City, Georgia, and finished fourth in his first race on Oct. 27, 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the years since, Smithley has won numerous trophies and awards that are spread out over his living room in Kannapolis, North Carolina, his parent’s house in Dallas, Georgia, a golf cart shop in Peach Tree City and both his grandparent’s houses.
But one award, a Rookie of the Year plaque from that first year of racing, means the most to the man who grew up rooting for Dale Jarrett and now drives the No. 0 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“I think it’s just because I was 15 years old when I started racing and that first season I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, neither did my dad,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “Looking back at it, knowing what I know now, I don’t know how we won any races because we had no idea what was going on. … For me it’s just because I had to figure it out, I had to pick it up. That was the moment where I knew I had some driving talent because I went out there, first season and won Rookie of the Year without ever racing anything else in my entire lap.”
Now Smithley is 52 starts into his Xfinity career. In his second season with JD Motorsports, Smithley has earned two top 10s, in February at Daytona and June at Iowa Speedway.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: After the first Iowa race, you snuck up behind your teammate Ross Chastain during his TV interview and you looked like it was your birthday. When was the last time you had that feeling after a race?
Smithley: I guess it would have to be Daytona, I’m trying to think. We’ve had good runs here and there this year. I would say honestly that was the first time this season since Daytona that we’ve had that. It’s such a good feeling. Again, with that race, I had one set of sticker tires the whole day to finish like that. Who knows what could have happened if we had a little bit more tires. For Ross to go in there and finished fourth and for me to go in there and finished 10th. Harrison (Rhodes) unfortunately had an issue on his car, but he was probably going to be racing with us. … Anytime that we can do that, it’s a David and Goliath story. We’re up against these multi-million dollar teams that spend millions and millions on just one car and we’ve got probably not even a million on all three cars. To do that is special for sure.
NBC Sports: Do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?
Smithley: That’s a good question (laughs). I would say to some I’ve absolutely made it. I still see guys I raced with when I was a kid who have way more experience and way more money and way more talent that aren’t currently racing anything right now. I think to a lot of guys I’ve raced with, that I’m friends with, absolutely. I think for me I’m happy where I’m at. It’s surreal just to be in this position at all. To be racing full-time and making a living at it. But at the same time, for me I set my goals extremely high, and I think with that you’ll never stop working. So for me, I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to quit until I make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and that’s my ultimate goal.
For me, if I have that goal, no matter how many wins I get, no matter how many championships I get, no matter what I do, I’m always going to be chasing that goal and it gives me something to work toward, no matter what I’m doing. I’m always going to be happy where I’m … I’m not (always) going to be happy where I’m at, but I’m always going to appreciate where I’m at and I’m always going to enjoy it. But at the same time I’m not going to stop working. If I fall short, I fall short and I feel like that goal is high enough to where if I do fall short, hopefully I’ll have accomplished a lot along the way.
NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Bristol Cup race, what would be your intro song?
Smithley: I’m maybe a nerd for this, but I don’t know if you watch Spongebob (Squarepants), but it’s called “Sweet Victory” and it’s when Spongebob plays at the Bubble Bowl.
NBC Sports: Why that?
Smithley: I think that’s such a cool song. I’m like a huge Spongebob fan. And I can see the pyrotechnics and could just envision what that would look like to people.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Smithley: A 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan. … I drove it in high school. Peach Tree City is notorious for golf carts and there’s like 90 miles of golf cart paths throughout the city. I didn’t get my license until I was 17 and a half and had been racing for a year and a half in Bandoleros. I didn’t feel like there was a need to drive because I had golf carts. When I was 15 I could drive my golf cart. We drove golf carts to school and to the store and everything like that. So it was pretty crazy. But my parents had a minivan they bought new in 2001 and they said, ‘Here, you can have the minivan’ and I was like ‘All right.’ At first I was like, it’s a car, that’s fine. Then it ended up working out because everyone wanted to ride with me cause I had plenty of room. So I was popular. To this day I still wish I had that minivan cause I love that car.
NBC Sports: If you have a free day, how do you spend it?
Smithley: I’m out so much and doing things that when I do have a free day I just want to stay in and do nothing. There’s two things I really like to do when I just want to get away from life. One is put my headphones in, listen to really loud EDM music and play “Counter-Strike” on my computer, it’s a first-person shooter game. I do that or iRacing. I’ll get on a road course. They just came out with Nürburgring, I’ll just get in a Legends car or something like that and just drive it on Nürburgring, just for fun. Or I will go downstairs, I have a piano. I used to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I took them for like years. I’ll go down to the piano and play music.
NBC Sports: What songs can you play?
Smithley: ‘Let it Be’ is my favorite. ‘Let it Be’ by The Beatles. I can play ‘Apologize,’ (by OneRepublic), ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ by Aerosmith. There’s a couple of others that aren’t coming to my mind. I enjoy playing.
NBC Sports: If you could have a conversation with Dale Jarrett, what would you ask him?
Smithley: Funny enough, in 2015 I got a call from a producer from NBCSN and Jeff Burton does those hot laps every week before the Cup races for pre-race. So he called me and said ‘Hey, are you going to be in town for the Charlotte race?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m planning on going.’ I wasn’t racing at that point. He said, ‘I wanted to see if you could do some laps for us.’ … He said ‘You’re going to be driving along Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett.’
I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m going to drive with them on-track?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be in Petty cars and you’re going to do this for a segment.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s incredible.’ So I got to be in the production meeting with all the NBC executives, Rick Allen, Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett and all the drivers. It was just incredible. … At that point I only had three truck races under my belt. So I’m sitting here with a hall of famer, a champion and a guy who won several Cup races. I’m here at this like, ‘Hey, I’m Garrett. I’ve really only run three races in the Truck series.’ It was pretty surreal. So I got to talk to Dale that day. I just went over and said ‘Hey, I hate to be a fan, but you’ve always been my favorite driver when I was a kid and it’s really, really cool to be driving with you.’ He said, ‘Hey, just never give up. Keep digging. You’ll get there.’ For him to say that, now I can’t give up because my hero just told me that I can’t.
Here’s a look at the new guidelines and what all this means.
WHAT ARE THE NEW GUIDELINES?
In 2018, any driver who scores Cup points will be barred from competing in the final eight races of the Xfinity and Truck Series in 2018 (that’s the regular-season finale and the playoffs).
Any driver who scores Cup points will be barred from competing in the Dash 4 Cash races in the Xfinity Series in 2018.
Cup drivers with more than five years of experience in that series, will be limited to seven Xfinity races and five Truck races.
This year, Cup drivers with less than five years experience are allowed to compete in the playoffs in the Xfinity and Truck Series. The exception is that any driver scoring Cup points is prohibited from competing in the Xfinity and Truck championship race at Homestead.
This year, Cup drivers with less than five years experience were allowed in compete in the four Dash 4 Cash races.
This year, Cup drivers with more than five years experience in that series are allowed to compete in 10 Xfinity races and seven Truck races this year.
WHY IS THIS BEING DONE?
NASCAR states it is being done to give younger drivers more opportunities to compete in the Xfinity and Truck races. Also, NASCAR is not tone-deaf to complaints by fans about seeing Cup drivers dominate the Xfintiy Series in particular.
Cup drivers won 11 of the first 13 Xfinity races this season. Cup drivers won three of the four Dash 4 Cash races, no doubt a reason for barring Cup drivers in those events next year.
Your viewpoint depends on if you are a Kyle Busch fan. It could make his quest for 100 series wins (he’s at 89) take longer with fewer races per year. He has won 19 of the 39 Xfinity races he’s started since 2015. He’s won six of the 13 Truck races he’s started since 2015.
WILL THIS WORK IN ALLOWING MORE DRIVERS OPPORTUNITIES TO RACE IN THE XFINTY OR TRUCK SERIES?
It will come down to sponsorship. With top Xfintiy rides costing about $160,000 a race, the question is if enough drivers will be able to find that money to pay to race.
Kevin Harvick has raised the issue that Xfinity teams are able to offer lower rates for young drivers to pay to race because those teams have Cup drivers in their cars that bring higher sponsorship dollars.
Will this rule change those dynamics and raise the price for young drivers to buy their opportunities?
Will teams decide it’s not worth it to lower the cost for drivers to pay and decide to skip some races?
If that happens, will NASCAR eventually decide to cut the field size further?
Will fans who have complained about Cup drivers in the Xfinity and Truck Series begin attending or watching more of these races?
WHAT CUP DRIVERS HAVE WON XFINTIY RACES THIS YEAR?
ANY CONSIDERATION OF LIMITING A CUP TEAM’S PARTICIPATION IN EITHER SERIES?
“Not any serious consideration,’’ Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s something that we’ve not taken a hard look. I suppose we could. I think there are different ways of going about it. I think the path we’re on will continue to satisfy both sides for the fans as well as our current teams. We certainly don’t take for granted the interest and the participation of some of our Cup teams in the Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series.
WHAT XFINTIY RACES WILL CUP DRIVERS NOT BE ALLOWED TO RACE IN 2018?
Las Vegas (Sept. 15), Richmond (Sept. 21), Charlotte (Sept. 29), Dover (Oct. 6), Kansas (Oct. 20), Texas (Nov. 3), Phoenix (Nov. 10) and Homestead (Nov. 17).
All Cup drivers will be barred from the Dash 4 Cash races. Those races for 2018 have not been announced. In 2017, those races were the spring events at Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond and Dover.
WHAT TRUCK RACES WILL CUP DRIVERS NOT BE ALLOWED TO RACE IN 2018?
Bristol (Aug. 15), Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Aug. 26), Las Vegas (Sept. 14), Talladega (Oct. 13), Martinsville (Oct. 27), Texas (Nov. 2), Phoenix (Nov. 9) and Homestead (Nov. 16).
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:
Xfinity drive Blake Koch told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I prefer standalone races with the Xfinity guys. The one thing I love about going to Iowa is that every fan you meet, every fan you see, they’re there to watch your race and watch your series compete. … I always like racing against my competitors that we’re racing for in points. Every single car you’re racing against, every single person, it matters and you want to beat every car. Put seven or eight Cup guys in there and they don’t really have anything to lose, they’re just going for a win and it’s a different race. It’s almost like two different races going on the race track.’’
Kyle Larson tweeted: “I don’t mind the rule but the bar is set higher with Cup guys racing and I believe it helps the future competitiveness of our sport by…. Allowing them to compete and learn off of us. I would not have been ready for Cup in 14 without getting beat by the 18/22 and others.’’
Garrett Smithley told NBC Sports: “I always have mixed feelings on the matter. I understand personally and in a business sense why the Cup drivers come down to the Xfinity series and race. But, with that said, you look at Iowa last weekend. Ryan Preece got in the 20 car. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity if there was a Cup guy in it. So I think there is a place for Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series. Me personally I’ve learned from them. I’ve tried to gain their respect. I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of that. When you get up behind those guys and run with them you learn from them. You see different lines and do different things. I enjoy running with them, but at the same time the less Cup drivers that are in the races, the more opportunities that guys like myself would get.’’