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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Garrett Smithley, actor, singer and racer

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It’s late 2010, and Garrett Smithley is at a crossroads.

Fresh out of high school, Smithley has been given an ultimatum by his father: Take one year to see if this racing thing is going to go anywhere or find something else to do. In his first year competing in Legend Cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Smithley is worried his career might be over before it even begins.

College doesn’t seem like an option. Smithley admits he didn’t really apply himself much in school. His mind was always on racing.

But he needn’t worry too long because he’s about to catch a break.

“We met somebody from the Petty (Driving) Experience, and he told me that they were doing a driver development program up in Charlotte, and I knew from the moment I started racing I needed to get to Charlotte someway, somehow, someday,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “That gave me the opportunity to go.”

Even though he had never driven a stock car before, Smithley was among those picked to participate in the Richard Petty Driver Search.

“The finale was getting to drive a Sprint Cup car at Charlotte, going 190 mph, which was insane in September considering that in February I was still driving a 30-horsepower Bandolero on a quarter-mile track,” Smithley said. “It was a huge learning curve for me, but I did well enough that they offered me a job a couple of months later. I knew that was my shot to move to Charlotte.”

At 18 years old, Smithley made the move. Now 24, Smithley is in the midst of his first full-time Xfinity Series season with JD Motorsports after making a number of starts in the Camping World Truck Series and the ARCA Racing Series. In 23 Xfinity starts, Smithley has an average finish of 23.7 and has completed 94.7 percent of all laps run.

All of which was made possible because of the Petty program.

“It was everything to get me where I needed to go,” Smithley said.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Who is Garrett Smithley?

Smithley: I’m somebody who tries to smile every single day. I’ve been completely blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and I don’t take it for granted. I know a lot of people don’t have that kind of attitude, but it’s a blessing to be running in the Xfinity Series, just being in the NASCAR industry is so cool. I have a strong family background; I’ve had support from them from the very beginning even if it wasn’t financial. It’s been a crazy ride so far. I enjoy what I do; I try to find the good in everything and try to be positive. Every car I’ve raced has a sign on the dash that says ‘Patience, never give up’ and I try to live my life by that every day.

NBC Sports: Coming from a military family, how did you decide you wanted to be a racecar driver?

Smithley: Both of my grandfathers were in the military and my dad is a pilot and he flew a lot of civilian military stuff with the company he was working for. He went to school at Embry-Riddle University, which is in Daytona, and he grew up down there watching NASCAR, going to Rolex 24 and was a huge fan of it. When I was born and when my brother was born, we grew up watching NASCAR. I was 2 or 3 years old watching with my dad in the basement. Knew all the drivers and the crew chiefs and the sponsors, I was just taken by NASCAR.

I didn’t get interested in driving until I was 13 or 14 – I was born in Pennsylvania, and we moved down to Virginia then moved to Georgia. When I moved to Georgia the racing scene was a little bit bigger than anywhere we had previously lived, so we started going to some races. We went to this amusement park with these little go-karts and I drove that and like a switch flipped in my brain and I said ‘This is what I want to do,’ and from that point forward, I was obsessed with becoming a driver.

NBC Sports: How was going the military route not pushed on you?

Smithley: My parents have been very instrumental in giving my brother and me the opportunity to do whatever we wanted to do, so they didn’t push me to do anything, but they put us in a lot of different things. Growing up we played baseball; we played football, we did the sports thing. They also put us in dance classes and theatre stuff because my mom has a big theatre background.

I think the reason we didn’t talk about the whole racing is it wasn’t really an option. I didn’t know that kids were racing at 5 or 6 years old. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was playing with my Hot Wheels cars. It was always in my brain, and I look back at stuff from elementary school and middle school and doing different papers and different poems that always said I wanted to be a racecar driver, but I think it was never in my mind as a possibility. Even when I started, they just thought that it was going to be a hobby and just one of the things that I did on top of everything else because when I was racing full-time at 15, 16 I was also full-time in the theatre program in high school. So I had a lot of stuff to balance.

NBC Sports: Having a theatre and singing background is not something you normally hear about when it comes to a NASCAR driver. What are some of the things you did when you were younger?

Smithley: I’ve been doing theatre way longer than I’ve been racing. I was 6 or 7 years old when I did my first show with my mom; it was “Music Man.” I did a lot of that stuff in Virginia until we moved from Virginia when I was in fifth grade. We moved to Georgia, I went through that phase where I didn’t think it was cool anymore, so I didn’t do any of that. I still took piano and still sang in the chorus pretty much all the way through middle school and high school and then I got to high school, and one of the electives, my backup, backup, backup elective was drama. By the grace of God, I got put in drama and that pretty much changed my life and who I was, it gave me the confidence.

I wasn’t a very confident person when I was growing up and when I started doing drama it gave me that confidence, and I think that was a lot of the reason why I decided to be a racecar driver because you have to be confident to do that and make that decision. So I was secure in myself in saying, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ If I can sing and dance on stage in front of hundreds and hundreds of people, then I can go get in a racecar and go race on that same level.

All the way through high school I was racing full-time in Legends and Bandoleros, and there would be times when I had a race that afternoon, say on a Saturday, and then we would haul the mail back from the track to the auditorium at the school and do a show that night. They had to move shows for me to work with our racing schedule because I was going for a championship.

NBC Sports: Is there a driver you have tried to model yourself after in how you handle yourself?

Smithley: Dale Jarrett on a personal standpoint. When I was 2 or 3 years old I saw his car, and it was the American flag car and again, coming from a military background, I was always very patriotic, so that was the car I started cheering for. It turned out that Dale is one of the most well-respected racers in the garage and a Hall of Famer now. Personality-wise, I love his respect, I think it’s important to have the respect of your competitors, the respect of the fans.

When you’re talking about sponsors and promoting those who support you, I think it’s really important to do things in different ways, and Carl Edwards is another really big role model of mine. He’s probably one of the best out there to promote his partners and promote the people who support him in a way that people want to listen.

NBC Sports: Did you have a welcome to NASCAR moment?

Smithley: There was a time I was at Martinsville just going up to hang out with the Mitler Brothers (truck) team; I wasn’t racing so I was just wearing my regular street clothes. I was walking out of the tunnel and this fan called my name out said, ‘Hey Garrett can you sign this?’ I just kind of looked around and was like, who me? I wasn’t in my suit. That was a really cool moment for me because it’s easy to recognize somebody in a firesuit. Some fans just want your autograph because you’re in a firesuit, they might not know who they are. So that was pretty cool to have somebody recognized me and say they’ve been following me for a long time and were happy I’m getting the opportunity.

NBC Sports: How do you define success at JD Motorsports?

Smithley: It’s tough because we have such a unique situation where we got three cars, we’re obviously a team that’s up against a lot competing with the Cup teams. Success for us as a team right now is we really want to get Ross (Chastain) up into the Chase. That would be huge. For me personally, just running all the laps and getting max amount of experience and having respect; having really good runs.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised this year. I had no expectations going in. At the start of this year we were going to run the first three races and kind of see where it went from there. Johnny (Davis), I think it was after Las Vegas or Phoenix, said ‘I want to take you to California and see how you do there,’ and we did really well in California and he just kept taking me, and kept taking me, and kept taking me. Everybody just seems happy and as long as we can keep doing that these last 10 or 11 races we’ll be in good shape. Hopefully, that’ll give me some opportunities next year.

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John Hunter Nemechek earns first Xfinity Series win

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John Hunter Nemechek bounced back from two pit stop miscues in the last 50 laps to earn his first Xfinity Series win Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Nemechek, 21, led the final 30 laps. That was after he went from fifth to first on the final restart with 32 laps to go.

The son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek earned the win in his 15th start.

Nemechek had to pass Daniel Hemric, who finished second after leading 128 laps.

“It means a lot, especially at Kansas,” Nemechek told NBC. “(In) 2004, I forget how old I was. But dad swept the weekend in the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. It’s pretty special.”

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Shane Lee and Tyler Reddick.

Nemechek pitted with Hemric with 50 laps to go and slid through his pit box. He left pit road three seconds behind Hemric.

When the final caution waved with 36 laps to go, Nemechek had to pit twice to tighten lug nuts.

“When that caution came I knew we had a chance,” Nemechek told NBC. “Luckily Daniel and I raced each other hard and clean all day. We got the track position and this thing was unreal to the end.”

When Nemechek took the checkered flag, he led Hemric by roughly five seconds. Hemric said he had a vibration over the last 15 laps.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: John Hunter Nemechek

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Elliott Sadler earned his best finish since the July Daytona race (second) … Shane Lee placed fourth for his career-best finish … Tyler Reddick earned his first top five of the playoffs … Ryan Sieg placed ninth for his second top 10 of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Playoff contenders Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier, Austin Cindric and Christopher Bell were all involved in an eight-car wreck on Lap 1. Only Custer finished the race (26th) … Brandon Jones was eliminated via a one-car incident on the ensuing restart … After being involved in the Lap 1 crash, Spencer Gallagher was eliminated in one-car incident on Lap 26 … After Bell and Jones, Ryan Preece completed the Joe Gibbs Racing trifecta. He was involved in an incident on the last lap of Stage 2 when he was turned from contact with Joey Gase. Preece finished 21st.

NOTABLE: John Hunter Nemechek is the third driver to earn his first Xfinity win of the season (Ross Chastain, Spencer Gallagher).

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 3. on NBCSN.

Video: Xfinity playoff contenders out after Lap 1 crash at Kansas

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Three of the eight playoff contenders were eliminated in a crash on the first lap of Saturday’s Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway, which opens the Round of 8.

Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric and Cole Custer were involved in a nine-car wreck as the field raced through Turn 2. Allgaier, Bell and Cindric were eliminated while Custer’s team was able to make repairs to his No. 00 Ford.

It began when Allgaier got loose and made contact with Bell.

“Just hate it for everybody that we took out on Lap 1. It’s uncalled for, ” Allgaier told NBC. “That one’s on me.”

Bell, who won this race last year, told NBC he “didn’t really see much of anything” as the wreck developed. “Just heartbroken. This is one of my favorite race tracks we go to. Especially after the run I had last year. This was the race I was really looking forward to when we started the year back in February.”

Allgaier earned his second DNF of the playoffs while Bell and Cindric earned their first.

“It was just a racing incident,” Cindric said. “You don’t really expect something that big to happen in front of you on the first lap. … It is unfortunate that it happened that early. Huge points implications on my end and the owners championship end. I have to put my head down the next couple weeks and figure it out.”

Non-playoff drivers Michael Annett, Ryan Truex, Spencer Gallagher and Chase Briscoe were also involved.

The race restarted on Lap 12. The field was immediately slowed by a one-car incident involving Brandon Jones on the backstretch.

Kurt Busch fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Kurt Busch led the way in the final practice session for Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver posted a top speed of 186.226 mph.

The top five was completed by Erik Jones (186.104 mph), Aric Almirola (185.842), Kyle Busch (185.471) and Paul Menard (185.446).

MORE: Aric Almirola fastest in Saturday’s early practice

There were no incidents in the session.

Joey Logano, who was 12th fastest, recorded the most laps with 67.

Kyle Busch had the best 10-lap average at 183.094 mph.

Click here for the speed chart.

Daniel Hemric wins Xfinity pole at Kansas Speedway

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Daniel Hemric won the pole for today’s Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hemric claimed his fourth pole of the year with a top speed of 183.955 mph.

The top five was completed by Christopher Bell (182.784 mph), Justin Allgaier (182.426), Austin Cindric (182.254) and Brandon Jones. (182.254).

The top 10 was rounded out by Tyler Reddick, Ryan Preece, Shane Lee, Matt Tifft and Cole Custer.

In Round 2 John Hunter Nemechek qualified 13th. He was followed by Ryan Truex, Michael Annett, Ryan Reed, Spencer Gallagher and Ty Majeski.

Round 1 had a lengthy red flag with 1:05 left in it for fluid on the track. That allowed Reed, Truex and John Nemechek’s cars to get through inspection and make a lap.

Click here for the starting lineup.