Ryan: Kyle Busch has been the best, but is his Cup sword the sharpest?

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – So maybe eight races into the season is a little early to start looking ahead to the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But don’t fault Kyle Busch for looking ahead – and simultaneously looking back – after his series-high third victory of the Cup season in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

With eight consecutive top-10 finishes (the first driver to do that since Terry Labonte in 1992), the 2015 champion is off to one of the greatest starts in the history of NASCAR’s premier series.

So is Busch the championship favorite after outdueling Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, whose Team Penske Fords have combined with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota to account for every victory this year (Keselowski has two, Logano one and Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin has the other two)?

“No, I don’t think we’re the championship favorite,” Busch told NBC Sports in victory lane Sunday. “I think any of the two Penske guys (Keselowski and Logano) are the championship favorites. They certainly have the speed, and they showed us what short-run speed looked like last year at Homestead, so that’s what I see right now. We’ve got some work to do.”

The 2018 regular season remains a major cautionary tale for declaring a two- or three-team championship battle months before the playoffs begin. The so-called “Big Three” of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. were the consensus championship favorites entering the final 10 races, and the trio still managed to reach championship finale intact despite a mostly lackluster playoffs (which was a warning sign for Logano winning the finale as a wild card-style champion).

That was largely on the strength of playoff points, which Busch is accumulating at an even greater rate than the Big Three last year. With 19 through eight races (Keselowski is next closest with 12), Busch is well on the way to carrying a full race of points cushion into the playoffs, which would help blaze a clear path toward his fifth consecutive championship round appearance.

But yet … it doesn’t feel as if Busch is the clear-cut favorite. He led 71 laps at Bristol while Logano (146) and Keselowski (40) more than doubled his total (and Penske’s third driver, Ryan Blaney, led a race-high 156 laps).

“That was an honest interview from Kyle in victory lane talking about the Penske cars,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on NASCAR America’s Bristol recap. “He knows when they go to Homestead, short-run speed is going to be important. He knows that’s something you have to work on all year long. He also knows that he was not the dominant car at Bristol. I feel I have to agree with them that Penske cars are the favorites right now.”

Kyle Busch (left) battled for the lead with Brad Keselowski (right) and Joey Logano at Bristol (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Lest we forget (and Busch and his team certainly haven’t), it was short-run speed that eliminated the No. 18 Camry from the 2018 championship. When the green flag fell on the final restart of last season, Busch was in the lead (thanks to a swift pit stop and the No. 1 pit stall) but faded to fourth behind Logano, Truex and Harvick over the last 15 laps at Miami.

Though he turned the tables on Logano at Bristol with crew chief Adam Stevens’ clever strategy call, the short-run equation still feels the same five months later.

“I would hesitate to pick who’s best right now,” Stevens said when asked about whether Gibbs or Penske was the favorite. “I mean, they’ve had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already. I don’t think being fast in the first seven or eight races of the year really means that you’re going to go to Homestead and wear everybody out. Certainly, their program is in a good spot. I think we’re in a good spot.

“I think if we do our jobs, hit it right, we can run with anybody. I don’t expect that will be different when we get down to the playoffs.”

That’s in the long run. In the meantime, keep an eye on the short-run speed.

Here are other items that caught our eye at Bristol:


The NASCAR conspiracy theorists wanted to draw a line between Harvick’s three prerace inspection failures at Bristol Motor Speedway and the shot he took at NASCAR officials on his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week.

Actually, there’s a much stronger case for cause and effect with what Harvick said after placing eighth the race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he called out the lack of performance by his No. 4 Ford.

It would seem that running afoul of the Optical Scanning Station is a much likelier byproduct of the pressure that Harvick was putting on his team instead of the pressure he put on NASCAR.

Throughout the course of the weekend, and especially during Saturday’s final practice, Harvick had the fastest car at Bristol, and Sunday’s woes in tech underscored how much the team was pushing the limits of legality to find speed. As crew chief Rodney Childers told AutoWeek, an adjustment to camber to achieve compliance would throw the toe settings out of bounds and fixing that in turn would affect camber again.

Regardless, even though the inspections were undoubtedly a stressful distraction, they probably were worth it for a driver who has implored his team to reassert the dominant speed it had in 2014, ’15, ’16 and ‘18.

The penalty (a pass-through at the start that dropped Harvick a lap down) was stiff, but a Lap 3 caution kept Harvick from falling two laps down and might have given him a shot at contending for a win if not for a loose wheel on his first stop.

He still rebounded from being four laps down to finish 13th and on the lead lap.

Harvick didn’t offer any comments after this race, but he clearly was happy with the speed of his Stewart-Haas Racing team even though Sunday was only his second finish outside the top 10 in 2019.


Bristol has become one of the best tracks for Clint Bowyer (who has six top 10s in the past eight races there), but how much better could the 0.533-mile oval be if the No. 14 Ford driver improved on restarts?

The case can be made that Bowyer has left 11 playoff points on the table over the past two races at Bristol. In the Aug. 18, 2018 race, he lost the lead to winner Kurt Busch on a restart with 23 laps remaining, failing to launch well despite having the preferred outside lane.

Sunday, he paid for choosing the inside line as the leader on a restart with two laps to go in the first stage, losing the playoff point by inches to Ty Dillon at the line.

Bowyer also lost the lead Sunday to race leader Kyle Busch on a Lap 383 restart despite having the outside line, and he fell from second to fourth from inside on a Lap 423 restart, which resulted in the battle with Joey Logano nine laps later that put Bowyer’s car in the wall.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver rebounded for a seventh by staying on track through the final caution but called it “just horribly disappointing. You get that close.  Long runs were my strong suit.  I couldn’t take off all day long.”

If Bowyer’s team can figure out a way to keep more air pressure in his tires for the restarts and short runs, the win will come, but in the meantime, it likely will mean much more frustration at Bristol, which has become one of the most line-sensitive tracks in NASCAR for restarts.


How important is lane assignment on restarts at Bristol?

As David Smith of the excellent Motorsports Analytics site notes, having the outside vs. the inside groove is the largest disparity in NASCAR’s premier series. According to statistics provided by Smith on his Positive Regression podcast with Alan Cavanna, cars lining up on the outside retained positions 93% of the time while those on the inside kept their spots at a rate of only 9%.

This is worth keeping in mind if another situation arises like the scoring confusion involving Keselowski’s car on the final restart – and why it’s incumbent upon NASCAR to get cars accurately lined up as quickly as possible. The stark difference between outside and inside could mean that there could be undue resistance from cars that don’t want to be ordered in the correct spot, making the process even more difficult.

For example, Ryan Newman thought he was restarting sixth (and on the outside) before Keselowski obeyed NASCAR’s orders. Though Newman “improved” to fifth on the restart as Keselowski awkwardly dropped into a three-wide formation in the fourth row on the way to serving black flag, the No. 6 Ford would finish ninth – which was likely worse than he might have if he’d restarted sixth.

Such is the era of double-file restarts on tracks with an overwhelmingly preferred restart groove.


Jimmie Johnson’s resurgence continued with his No. 48 Chevrolet starting and finishing 10th, building on a fifth at Texas Motor Speedway. But it might have started with what the team did wrong in his stunning 24th (two laps down) at Martinsville Speedway. The seven-time champion provided insight into what happened at one of his best tracks, noting the No. 48 team learned from the No. 9’s runner-up finish with a Chevrolet that featured fewer new widgets.

“At times you need to be aggressive and put new stuff on the car,” Johnson said after final practice at Bristol. “Then there are other times when you know there is a proven component or proven product that you just need to stay the course with. I don’t envy the crew chief position, or others, when you have drivers saying, ‘We need more, we need more…we need something new. What we have is not working’. So we put in all new sometimes. That is what we did at Martinsville. New wasn’t the thing to do. There are proven things that that we should have stayed the course. When to be aggressive and when not to…it sucks.”

And it’s compounded by two factors: 1) the Nevada-Arizona-California swing that precludes making major changes to the cars between races and ratchets up the pressure to improve when the opportunity arrives; and 2) the lack of real-world test to validate aerodynamics.

“Things that look good in sim, and we are ‘Oh, well, OK, We are putting that in!’ We still have to go prove it in race conditions,” Johnson said. “That is one thing simulation can not do. What the track is going to do when it rubbers up. And honestly in a lot of cases what it is like in traffic. That is all speculation. We don’t have any simulation that replicate what goes on in dirty air.”


After this column posted, a considerate and faithful reader noted that it neglected to touch on the spate of loose wheels Sunday at Bristol. Among the most notable and costly:

Erik Jones made two green-flag pit stops (from second on Lap 65 and from 14th on Lap 320), costing him a good finish.

–Martin Truex Jr. was forced to pit from the top five under green before the end of the second stage and was stuck a lap down for the rest of the race.

–Brad Keselowski pitted for a loose wheel under yellow after the end of the second stage.

Chris Buescher was headed toward a top five before slamming the Turn 2 wall because of a loose wheel with less than 50 laps remaining.

–Harvick also went four laps down after pitting under green on Lap 65 for a loose right front.

The root cause of all the problems?

Denny Hamlin theorized it’s the pit guns.

Typically loose wheels tend to be a byproduct of mistakes from pit crews rushing to gain track position (which did prove critical at Bristol based on the final round of pit strategy) or malfunctioning equipment.

Bristol’s high banking does put a heavy load on lug nuts, so getting them secure is essential. Some teams expressed concern to NBCSports.com that the NASCAR-mandated pit guns (which were introduced last year) don’t apply enough torque to keep the lug nuts secure even when they are fastened perfectly.

But a rash of loose wheels also have happened in past races at Bristol prior to the new pit guns (namely an Aug. 22, 2015 race in which Jeff Gordon had two loose wheels among several notables affected by the problem and the April 17, 2016 race that drew a memorable rant from Tony Stewart).

There had been little chatter about the Paoli pit guns since the wave of criticism from teams in the first few months after they were implemented last season.


The pitting outside the box penalty on Daniel Suarez’s team was a ticky-tack call that NASCAR hopefully will be revisiting for next season.

Shortly after the race, Suarez hadn’t seen the video of the stop in which a crew member removed tape from the nose while the No. 41 Ford was a few inches over the line. And once Suarez had seen it, it probably wouldn’t have changed his opinion. And that reveals something important about the Stewart-Haas Racing driver: In his third full season, Suarez doesn’t have time for excuses, whether it’s about being thrust into Cup too soon (he was) or challenging whether a whistle from the tower was questionable (it was).

“We know the rules,” he said after finishing eighth. “We cannot work on the car when the car is out of the box. I stopped moving, and then he went back to get. I thought he had it already. I shouldn’t move if he didn’t have it, and he shouldn’t touch the car if it’s out of the box, no matter what.

“So it’s something we have to work on. It’s good these things happen right now. We don’t want these things to happen later in the season. These mistakes have to happen right now so we can clean everything up for when the important part of the season is here.”


There’s no putting a happy face on the crowd estimated at 38,000 at Bristol, which drew nearly 160,000 to its Cup race on March 22, 2009.

There’s also no magic bullet for what will bring fans back. Lowering ticket prices, as a sister track in the Speedway Motorsports Inc. portfolio is doing, might help.

But trying to cap hotel prices isn’t the answer (nor is it feasible or even necessarily advisable given that the small market’s tax base likely counts on that revenue).

There aren’t enough hotel rooms within a 60-mile radius of Bristol Motor Speedway for a complete lodging of the twice annual sellout crowds of 160,000 that regularly filled Bristol 10 to 15 years ago.

And even if there were enough hotel rooms within an hour’s drive, and if they were all affordable, the infrastructure of the Tri-Cities isn’t constructed to handle that many people driving into the race.

The reason that Bristol worked when it sold out twice annually was because most of its fans camped. The vast campgrounds surrounding the track suffered a mass exodus during the Great Recession, shortly after the track underwent a controversial reconfiguration in 2007 and subsequent reversion in 2012. The economy recovered, but the fans didn’t return en masse.

Yes, hotel rates can be obscenely expensive in the area around Bristol, but that’s mostly because demand easily can outstrip supply.

Sky-high prices also are part and parcel to big-league sporting events (or maybe you missed what it cost to park in downtown Minneapolis last weekend), and market forces also work as those events lose their luster.  Last weekend, rates at hotels within a 20-minute drive to the Bristol track plummeted to a third of what they likely would have been for the same race weekend 10 to 15 years ago.


If NASCAR officials are serious about ejecting hauler drivers from teams for inspection failures, it would create some interesting logistical challenges … and not just because of the need for a CDL-A license to move an 18-wheeler from the infield and up the high banks of Bristol.

With the long-haul requirement of all the ancillary companies that transport the support equipment for NASCAR’s traveling circus, there are enough prospective truck drivers hanging around the infield for a Cup team caught in a pinch.

The real costs to teams of tossing hauler drivers would be the institutional knowledge that all of them have about packing up their trucks and the support duties (many are master grillers).

NASCAR has tried many methods of deterrence over the years (points penalties, crew chief suspensions, practice time deductions) to force teams into bringing “cleaner” cars through inspection.

This type of punishment would be less about hurting teams competitively than about inconveniencing them. With teams required to submit full designated team rosters since last season, that makes it easier for NASCAR to be more selective in making them feel the hurt of a penalty. It could be a clever approach.


It’s worth reinforcing that while NASCAR warned drivers about penalties for failing to meet the new media availability obligations this season, the policy has been a resounding success aside from a few blips.

Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway yielded countless nuggets from several drivers whose stories often go overlooked or untold. Whether Bubba Wallace’s love of photography, Michael McDowell’s work habits or Tyler Reddick’s Twitter persona, all the interviews were worthwhile.

There is resistance to the new requirements from the establishment, and that’s understandable because 1) they are unaccustomed to the asks after years of handling media another way; and 2) the demands on their time – between increased sponsor rosters (and resultant appearances) and weekly data downloads from engineers – are greater than ever while their stature ensures they are requested heavily.

But for the next generation of drivers – such as Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell, all of whom patiently took questions at Bristol (some tough, in Bell’s case) – this arrangement will become the norm, and as it does, NASCAR, its sponsors and (most importantly) its fans will be better for it.

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”