Friday 5: High expectations follow teen Sam Mayer, just as he wants it

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As Sam Mayer prepares for his Xfinity Series debut Sunday at Pocono Raceway, the JR Motorsports driver is not afraid to share his lofty goals.

“Whenever I hear someone say, ‘You always want to underestimate something and then exceed your expectation,’ … you’re pretty much giving up before you get there,” he told NBC Sports.

“I don’t want to get to my expectations right away. I’m going to shoot for eight (Cup) championships and 201 race wins in the Cup Series because I want to break all the records in the world.

“So, I’m going to put all the expectations all the way out there — where it is borderline impossible to reach — and if I can’t get there, a close second is 150 wins and seven championships. … Even if you don’t get to your expectations, you’re still breaking a lot of records, you’re still making a lot of people proud, and you’re doing well.”

Those are gargantuan goals for a driver who doesn’t turn 18 until Saturday, making him eligible to compete in the series.

But Mayer isn’t like most competitors.

The son of a racer, who grew up running laps on a mini Road America go-kart course on the family’s Wisconsin property, Mayer is poised to continue the surge of young drivers changing the face of NASCAR. He’s had a contract with JR Motorsports to race in the Xfinity Series since September 2020 — nine months before he was eligible to compete. He’ll race a full season for JRM in 2022.

A youth movement that saw last year’s Cup champion (Chase Elliott, age 24), Xfinity champion (Austin Cindric, 22) and Camping World Truck Series champion (Sheldon Creed, 23) all in their 20s, continues this season.

  • Ten of 17 Cup races have been won by drivers in their 20s, led by 28-year-old Kyle Larson’s four victories.
  • Seven of 15 Xfinity races have been won by drivers in the their teens or 20s.
  • Eight of 11 Camping World Truck Series haves have been won by drivers in their 20s.

Scott Lagasse Jr., who has raced with and fielded TA2 cars in the Trans Am series for Mayer, is impressed with what he’s seen from the teenager.

“He’s special,” Lagasse told NBC Sports. “I think the sky’s the limit. He’s become almost like a little brother to me, and I’m pretty hard on him because he frankly is that special. He’s got all the ability in the world to go wherever he wants to go to. The cool thing for me is I’ve seen the work he’s willing to put in.”

With any quest for records comes the first step and the first victory.x

Mayer said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that he is “expecting to win” any of his first three Xfinity starts in the No. 8 car for JRM. That car already has won this season with Josh Berry at Martinsville.

If Mayer wins in the next three races, he would become the youngest series winner, breaking Joey Logano’s record. Logano was 18 years, 21 days when he won the Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway in 2008.

“It’s special to be able to hold it,” Logano said of the record, “but you want to see progression in this sport, so in a ways, you hope it gets beat.”

Should Mayer win this year, he would join Ty Gibbs as the second 18-year-old to win in Xfinity this season. Gibbs has two victories, including a win in his first series start. Gibbs was 18 years, 4 months, 16 days when he won at the Daytona road course in February.

Gibbs’ wins fuel Mayer.

“If he’s beating all these guys in the Xfinity Series, I feel like I can go out and do the same,” Mayer told NBC Sports.

Meyer and Gibbs have raced against each other for years. They’ve often dueled at the front in ARCA races. Both are entered in Friday’s ARCA race at Pocono Raceway.

“We’ve kind of got a relationship where we’re like frenemies, I guess,” Mayer said. “We’re kind of buddies off the racetrack and then when on the racetrack, we race like hell to win.”

Asked about Mayer in a media session this week, Gibbs said: “Sam is a really great kid, and I’ve raced him a lot the last couple of years. I really don’t spend too much time with a lot of race car drivers, honestly. I’ve got three close friends that are racers. … He’s a great kid. I’ll race everybody the same, and I want to beat them all.”

So does Mayer, who started racing go-karts at age 4. Even then, Scott Mayer thought his son could be headed for success.

“It just seemed like it was meant to be, it was what he wanted to do,” Scott Mayer told NBC Sports. “I knew I would have the opportunity and resources through connections and funding to be able to do that. … Looking back, it was really naive of me to think that, but hindsight is also 20/20, it’s proven to be true. What I thought of him at 4, 5, 6, 10 years old, I see coming to fruition now.”

Scott Mayer points to those laps his son ran on the family’s half-mile go-kart course as a good training ground.

“It’s not cleaned every day, and it’s in the middle of a corn field, so there’s constantly dust and dirt blowing on it, so it’s always slippery,” Scott Mayer said. “That built car control for him.”

Sam Mayer says only once did he go flying off course, through the grass and into the corn field.

“My left foot got stuck underneath kind of the nose, and I missed the brake pedal and went shooting off into the corner and went probably like 100 yards into the corn,” Sam Mayer said. “It took probably about a half an hour to get the go-kart out. It was pretty bad. (The corn stalk) was pretty short. It was probably only about 3 feet tall.”

For many years, Sam Mayer focused on IndyCar racing, but he suddenly decided at age 11 he wanted to race in NASCAR. He can’t recall what led to the change, just that his drive became focused on stock cars. The decision shocked his father.

“He about started crying because he had no idea of what to do,” Sam Mayer said of his dad. “He had no connection in NASCAR. He did IndyCar for a while and he knew everyone in the sport. He was well on his way of making connections for me (in IndyCar).”

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 225 Practice
Sam Mayer finished sixth last month in the Camping World Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas, his most recent Truck race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Scott Mayer consulted Colin Braun, a former NASCAR driver and teammate to Mayer in select NASCAR Grand Am races in 2012. Braun led them to Lorin Ranier, who has helped guide Mayer’s development.

One of the decisions was to have Sam Mayer race a Legend Car in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That meant Sam and his dad flying from Wisconsin to Charlotte and back each week during the season.

Mayer went on to win the 2017 Young Lions championship at the U.S. Legends Asphalt Nationals in Las Vegas.

He claimed the 2019 and ’20 championships in the ARCA Menards Series East. He won in his seventh career Truck Series start, taking the checkered flag last year at Bristol Motor Speedway. That made him the second-youngest winner in series history. Later that night, he won the ARCA race at Bristol.

“This is truly what he wants and this is what he’s going to do, no question,” Scott Mayer said of his son’s desire for a racing career.

If there was any doubt, consider what Sam Mayer did last August.

Running third in a TA2 race at Road America, he was collected in a chain-reaction, multi-car crash. The fuel cell ruptured and fire quickly spread. A small burn mark remains on the back of his neck.

With a hairline fracture of his right wrist, he pulled the steering wheel off, lowered the window net and began to climb out as flames were around his car.

“The worst part about that was having to run through the flames on the track because gas was all over track,” he said.

A week later, he finished third in the ARCA race on the Daytona road course with the injured wrist.

The chance now to race with one of the top Xfinity teams is not lost on Mayer, who recently graduated from high school.

“I’m getting the opportunity,” he said, “and I just want to make the most out of it.”

2. Different philosophies

There was a time when car owner Rick Hendrick didn’t permit his drivers to race in other series, primarily sprint car racing, but his mindset has changed in recent years.

That’s allowed Kyle Larson to compete in mid-week events at short tracks throughout the country — just as he did this past week in two events in South Dakota. He is scheduled to run three sprint car races next week in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

“I basically told them, ‘If you get hurt, I got to put somebody in the car,’“ Hendrick said of his instructions to his drivers.

“I think as we get closer in the playoffs, I think we’ll slow some of it down. But (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and I have talked about it. It makes (Larson) better to drive all these different cars, especially those high-horsepower cars on dirt.”

Hendrick noted that improved safety measures in other series have made it easier to allow his drivers to compete beyond their Cup ride.

Larson isn’t the only Cup driver who will be racing a sprint car next week. Christopher Bell will drive in the same events with Larson on June 28-29.

Not every Cup team is as lenient about what drivers can race. Ryan Blaney said this week that he’d like to race other types of cars but is not allowed by Team Penske.

“If it was up to me, I would race a lot, I would do as much as I can,” Blaney said. “The way it’s worked out right now is that’s just not an option. I’m a racer, and I would love to race all kinds of series, whatever it is because seat time is seat time and it helps you become a better racer. Unfortunately, that’s just not in the cards right now. I wouldn’t mind definitely even like Xfinity and Truck races, but that’s just, like I said, not in the cards.”

Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, says safety is a key reason for why the organization limits what its drivers can do.

“You look at risk level for your driver, who is an asset for your company,” he said. “It’s somebody that represents all of your sponsors. You have your whole program built around your drivers, and I think when you see them in situations where you don’t really have control over, I think that become uncomfortable for people. 

“When you look at going and jumping in other people’s cars, different things, you don’t necessarily have the same kind of oversight to their safety equipment that you have when it’s one of our cars and we’ve prepared it, we know everything about it. We know all the safety stuff that NASCAR puts into their races, so I would say that’s probably what I see as being the biggest limiter to it.”

Geisler noted that there are cases where the organization has allowed its drivers to race in other series. That happened earlier this year. Both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano raced on dirt before competing in the Cup race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“That’s why you saw Brad Keselowski go race a dirt late model,” Geisler said. “You saw Joey Logano go race at Volusia (Speedway Park in Florida) and Bristol in a modified. We were going to race dirt and nobody knew how to do that, so, ‘OK, we have a performance advantage here, let’s go do it,’ and everybody was on board. 

“That was something everybody supported, and I think that applied to our series, so it made sense. Going and racing otherwise, I think that’s evaluated on probably a case-by-case basis.”

3. Seeking to close the gap

After each of its three drivers won within the first 10 Cup races this season, the fortunes for Team Penske have soured.

Since May, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney have combined for four top-five finishes in points races (all three drivers placed in the top five in the NASCAR All-Star Race).

While Team Penske’s drivers have struggled, Hendrick Motorsports has won the last five points races and the NASCAR All-Star Race.

“Certainly, you get tired of going to the track every weekend not feeling like you have the opportunity to go out and dominate and win a race,” said Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske. “That’s what we go there for and that’s not the case right now. 

“It’s not necessarily panic, but the realities of where you are and how much ground you need to cover to close the gap.”

How to do that? Geisler was asked if a team focuses on themselves or looks at what the Hendrick cars are doing.

“I think primarily, you have to focus internally because that’s what you can control,” he said. “You can’t control what Hendrick has and what they’re working on.

“But you certainly compare against the best and the SMT tools that we have to compare the on-track performance, where you’re getting beat, where they’re able to make more speed, whether it’s entry, exit, middle, short, medium, long-term runs. … The best you can do when you’re trying to copy somebody is be just a little bit worse than them. You’re never gonna be as good as somebody that you try to copy, so the only thing you can do is be the best version of yourself.”

Yet, for the challenges Hendrick cars present to the rest of the field, they also provide hope. Especially as one looks back to last season when Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the regular season.

“I don’t think you would have looked at (Elliott) as the guy you would have said was gonna go win the championship as the playoffs started to unfold,” Geisler said. “But he had some heroics and won the last two races and ends up the champion, so not panic but definitely realistic on the ground that needs to get covered here over the next couple months and then you’ve got to be there when it counts at the end.”

4. Avoiding a repeat of last year

Tyler Reddick enters this weekend holding the 15th of 16 playoff spots. While he has a 49-point lead on Kurt Busch, the first driver outside a playoff spot, Reddick knows how much this weekend’s two races can change a driver’s playoff fortunes.

All Reddick has to do is look at what happened last year at Pocono.

He entered the 2020 Pocono doubleheader holding the final playoff spot by one point. After the track’s two races, Reddick was outside a playoff spot by 26 points.

A crash during the Saturday Pocono race was part of a miserable weekend last year for Tyler Reddick. (Photo: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports)

Reddick scored nine points — out of a maximum 120 — in the two races. A crash in the first race and a mechanical issue in the second ruined his weekend. He missed the playoffs last year.

It is the memory of that weekend that is with Reddick as the series returns to Pocono.

“You got to make sure you have a smooth weekend,” he said. “If you have a really bad day on Saturday and don’t get any points, it’s really going to set you back going into Sunday. … You got to realize every risky decision and everything that you could do on Saturday that could be a risk potentially affects what happens ultimately on Sunday as well.”

Reddick also said that doesn’t mean he can be conservative all the time.

“Pocono is the type of race where I feel like racing hard on restarts is important, but the way that you win that race or get a good points day out of it is picking and choosing battles and executing the race strategy perfectly,” he said.

“You don’t want to get caught up racing a guy for one point, one spot, and lose 1.5-2 seconds battling someone and lose touch with the rest of the field ahead of you.

“It totally changes up your strategy and what options you have available to you to try and maybe get ahead of them in a pit cycle; whatever it might be. You have to race smart. That’s just the type of race that Pocono is with the package we have. You have to race a little bit smarter than hard.”

5. Key strategy at Pocono 

With Pocono Raceway so large that teams can pit under green and not lose a lap, pit strategy could play a key role in both Cup races this weekend (3 p.m. ET Saturday and 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, both on NBCSN).

In both of last year’s races, the winner pitted three laps before the end of stage 1, giving up stage points. Kevin Harvick used that strategy to win the Saturday race. Denny Hamlin used that strategy to win the Sunday race. That win tied Hamlin with Jeff Gordon with most victories at Pocono at six.

Winning stages is not typically a route the race winner takes at Pocono. Only two of 16 stage winners there won the race. Two of the last eight stage winners at Pocono finished the race in the top 10. Three of the last five Pocono winners did not lead until past the halfway mark.

Harvick and Hamlin were among five drivers who finished in the top 10 in both Pocono races last year. The others were Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

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