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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NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.