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Zane Smith to make Xfinity debut in Las Vegas

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Zane Smith sat atop the pit box for JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet during last Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta when his phone started “blowing up.”

The gist of the messages barraging the 19-year-old who was a week away from making his Xfinity Series debut?

“Hey, Jimmie Johnson just gave you a huge shout out.”

The seven-time Cup champion was serving as an analyst on Fox Sports 1’s broadcast and had brought up Smith. The mention meant a lot to Smith, who “always looked up” to Johnson, a fellow California native.

“It’s kind of hard not to look up to him,” Smith told NBC Sports. “We kind of come from the same backgrounds. Our dads worked in off-road racing and come from nothing. I always have weird Déjà vu with him. I say that a lot, but it trips me out all the time. If I can be half the dude he can be I’ll be happy. ”

The New Guy

Of the six drivers slated to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet this year in the Xfinity Series, Smith is not like the others.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, Jeb Burton, Ryan Preece and Ryan Truex are all veterans with 56 or more starts across NASCAR’s three national series.

Smith, a member of the 2018-19 NASCAR Next class, has only one Gander Outdoor Truck Series start and will make his Xfinity debut today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

A winner of four Menards ARCA Series races, Smith said he entered this weekend “super focused.”

“I was actually just talking to my dad (Mike) about it,” Smith said.  “It’s crazy how we’ve gotten this far and really everyone that’s got me to this point.”

A native of Huntington Beach, California, Smith has competed since he was a 3-year-old riding a BMX bike.

After making the switch go karts, he steadily moved up the ranks, racing in Legends cars, Super Late Models and ARCA before making his only Truck Series start last June at Gateway Motorsports Park. He finished fifth for DGR-Crosley.

“We won’t move up until I win everything you kind of can. Or if you don’t win, you put yourself in contention to,” Smith said.

So why move to Xfinity after just one impressive Truck Series start?

“In my opinion, and a lot of people will kind of tell you as well, is that the Truck Series can kind of teach you bad habits,” Smith said. “I’ve kind of watched that from a lot of people. I feel like the Truck Series is kind of on its own. They just drive different from the rest. I totally agree if you have the money or the backing to go do a full year of trucks, absolutely I would first. But with my situation I can’t do that.”

Smith’s situation is a group of dedicated investors who have backed him since his go-kart days.

“It’s more than just slapping your logo on a side of a car,” Smith said. “They’re trying to get me to the top-level (Cup) and then I pay them back.”

The major investors in the group consist of Roy Debhan of ProAm Racing, Tim Casey of La Paz Margarita Mix and La Paz Racing and former Truck Series team owner Jimmy Smith.

He’s also received support from the Herbst family, which operates Herbst Smith Fabrication and whose Terrible Herbst Motorsports odd-road team his father manages.

“We had to figure out how to get to the race track when I was in go karts when a race weekend would cost a couple grand,” said Smith.  “Now it’s a couple hundred. It’s tough getting to the race track and a lot of fans I think needed to be educated on that no matter who you are you’re going to have to pay.”

Next Chapter

After a 2018 season where Smith finished second in the ARCA point standings, Smith landed at JR Motorsports for a tentative eight-race schedule after a deal with GMS Racing failed to come together.

After Las Vegas, he’s set to compete at Bristol Motor Speedway (April 6), Richmond Raceway (April 12 and Sept. 20), Dover International Speedway (May 4 and Oct. 5) and Iowa Speedway (June 16 and July 27).

Zane Smith during the Jan. 31 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Smith got his feet wet on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 during the Las Vegas test. While the focus of the test was on the Cup Series and its new rules package, Smith was among four Xfinity rookies who took part.

Smith said he was the fastest of the Xfinity drivers.

“I felt super comfortable in it,” Smith said. “In my opinion, if you’re good enough to run with these guys you should be able to hop in anything and be fast in it.”

While he spent the first two race weekends shadowing the No. 8 team as Elliott and Preece drove it, Smith said he’s been leaning the most on teammate Justin Allgaier.

“He’s like the nicest person you’ll meet off the race track and he’s a badass on the track,” Smith said. “He’s kind of confusing honestly. I don’t know how to explain it. Really, whatever you need to ask him, he’s going to answer it for you. Definitely seems like one of the best teammates you’ll ever have.”

Saturday will see Smith will get to show off all he’s picked up from his teammates in the last month.

Roughly 70 family members, friends and investors in his racing future will be in attendance.

“I’ve got zero expectations,” Smith said. “Just to make the most out of it.”

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Long: In a time of change, some things remain the same at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — They’ve reconvened in Daytona International Speedway’s infield, some back for a fifth year, others a 10th and still others for more, to watch cars go around in circles.

Their flags pledge loyalties to Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, celebrating days gone by. Other flags wave for Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and reigning series champ Joey Logano.

New or old, fans have returned for Sunday’s Daytona 500, which will held among a swirl of changes.

The season starts with talk of rules that debut next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and will change how the racing looks. There also have been discussions of a new look for 2020 and beyond. Schedule changes are expected next year, even more in 2021 – when the Gen 7 car is projected to premiere.

The dawn of a new season and what is coming has reinvigorated a garage beaten down the past couple of years. Jim France is now in charge and he’s in the garage, a marked change from Brian France’s approach.

Seeing Jim France each weekend gives those who work in the garage optimism. How long it lasts depends on what changes the sanctioning body make.

For fans, it’s all about what the racing looks like.

That’s a lot left to be desired at Daytona so far. Asked if he thought the racing had been good this week, Richard Petty said: “No, I don’t.”

His comment came before Saturday’s Xfinity race won by Michael Annett, who led the final 45 laps. It was great win for Annett personally but the single-file racing frustrated some fans and left them to wonder how Daytona could turn into a high-speed conga line.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the high line becoming just so clearly dominant,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after watching JR Motorsports win the season-opening Xfinity race for the fourth time in the last six years. “To listen to the drivers and to watch what happened (Saturday) in the race, it doesn’t seem like it’s entirely by choice that they all ride up there, it’s by necessity.”

Fans saw that same type of racing in the Clash and both qualifying races during Speedweeks. What often was missing in those events were things Clint Bowyer says are important to make a good race.

“Moments,” Bowyer said this week. “No different than when I go to a football game. The Super Bowl sucked and I am a football fan. Again, you go watch the (Kansas City) Chiefs games, I was lucky enough to be a Chiefs fan this year and it was a highlight reel one after another with (quarterback Patrick) Mahomes and (Tyreek) Hill.

“I don’t know, there wasn’t a highlight the whole Super Bowl in my opinion. It was a snoozer. Was it an extremely challenging game in other eyes, yes. I guarantee you there are football gods out there saying it was the best game in the history of football. To me, there weren’t enough moments.

“You have to have good passing, side-by-side (racing), changes for the lead, cautions – I don’t want a caution because that means somebody has wrecked or had a problem but there are so many things that go into adding up to those moments. Us drivers, you have to be in a situation that you can make the most of.

“Again, without a caution at the end of some of these restrictor-plate tracks, we may not have those moments. Sometimes all it takes is a caution to make that moment that someone takes to the office the next (day) to say, ‘My gosh, you should have been there and seen that.’ We have to have more of those, no question.”

There is a belief that the racing should be better in the Daytona 500 with a full 40-car field. The Clash had 20 cars and both qualifying races had 21-car fields. There weren’t enough cars to create a competitive second lane, so most ran the high line. That said, Chase Elliott made a number of passes on his own in his qualifying race. Daniel Suarez also tried such moves.

But for all the talk about the racing, some things remain the same. Cup veterans often dominate Speedweeks and have done so this week. Jimmie Johnson won the Clash after contact with Paul Menard. Kevin Harvick and Logano each won their qualifying races. A Hendrick Motorsports car is on the pole for a fifth consecutive year, this time with William Byron.

Maybe things will change Sunday. The Truck Series saw Austin Hill score his first career series win. Then Annett recorded his first career Xfinity win Saturday. 

That’s why fans travel near and far to be at Daytona on a Sunday in February. For all the questions about the racing, for the surprise winners, no one knows what to expect. Just like it has always been at this track.

 

 

Michael Annett earns first Xfinity win in season opener at Daytona

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Michael Annett won Saturday’s Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway to earn his first career series victory in his 230th start.

The JR Motorsports driver led the final 45 laps and beat teammate Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Ryan Sieg and Austin Cindric.

Annett, 32, had never led more than 16 laps in a season before Saturday.

“It just means so much,” Annett said. “It’s been two really tough years in this series for me, just not getting the results I wanted to. Last year was really tough, we even missed the playoffs. I put a ton of work into myself and my race craft … everything this offseason to make myself not have any question of if I was here and ready to go win a championship.”

He previously won at Daytona in the ARCA Menards Series in 2008. In that race, Allgaier also finished second.

“I couldn’t beat him then and I couldn’t do it today,” Allgaier told Fox Sports 1. “To see Michael get his first win, he’s tried so hard and to see the effort and time that he’s put into it, especially this offseason, it’s really, really cool.”

The win is the fourth for JR Motorsports in the last six season openers at Daytona (Regan Smith, 2014; Chase Elliott, 2016; Tyler Reddick, 2018 and Annett today).

Annett and Allgaier also delivered JRM its fourth 1-2 finish in the race.

The victory by the No. 1 team is also the first for Annett’s crew chief, Travis Mack.

“I think it took a while for (Annett’s) approach to racing to change,” JRM co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “He had to learn how to race in good equipment. It’s a different mentality and a different approach.

“He’s certainly not the same guy that we hired … a lot of that has to do with the team around him, specifically with Travis Mack.”

Mack, a former car chief for Earnhardt in the Cup Series, was the crew chief for Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car in Cup last season before he was let go after 15 races. He led Annett’s team over the last 13 races of the Xfinity season.

“I thought immediately when that happened that we needed to pair him with Michael if Travis was interested in that opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “Travis’ assertiveness and personality would drive Michael and sort of light a fire under Michael.”

Mack said his tenure at LFR made him feel like “a teenager that kind of ran away from home for a little bit and realized it wasn’t better out there. …

“When Dale called me and had me come in I was super excited. I’ve been on-board ever since.”

A year after it had nine non-stage cautions, the 120-lap race was slowed only twice outside of stage breaks for a debris caution and a one-car spin.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Haley

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ross Chastain

Click here for the race results.

Click here for the point standings.

WHAT’S NEXT: Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on Feb. 23 on Fox Sports 1.

Chase Elliott to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevy in Xfinity opener

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Chase Elliott will drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series season-opener at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 16, the team announced Thursday.

The NASCAR Racing Experience 300 will mark a return of sorts for Elliott, who earned JR Motorsports’ first NASCAR championship when he captured the 2014 Xfinity Series title. He also won the 2016 Xfinity opener for JRM.

“This is more than just putting a driver in a car,” JRM general manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller said in a media release. “Chase is family to us and an integral part of our history.

“He helped kick-start our run of championships back in 2014 and has driven our cars to victory in several prestigious events, including a win at Daytona in 2016. We jumped at the chance of having one of our own return for this race.”

Chase Elliott won the 2016 Xfinity season opener for JR Motorsports. (Getty Images)

The car will be sponsored in the race by AfterShokz, a headphone brand and current partner of Elliott, who was voted NASCAR Cup’s Most Popular Driver in 2018.

“I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel for JRM in Daytona,” Elliott said. “Kelley, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and the entire organization have been so great to work with over the years. We won this race back in 2016, and this year we’re looking to get back into victory lane with AfterShokz.”

Elliott, who earned his first three NASCAR Cup wins last season, has five career Xfinity Series wins, all with JRM.

The 23-year-old Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, will be one of several drivers who will pilot the No. 8 Xfinity Chevy in 2019 for JRM. The other drivers include Jeb Burton, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Spencer Gallagher, Ryan Preece, Zane Smith and Ryan Truex.

Other drivers for JRM in the Daytona Xfinity opener include Michael Annett (No. 1 Pilot Flying J Chevrolet), Justin Allgaier (No. 7 BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet) and Noah Gragson (No. 9 Chevrolet).

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How the No. 8 wound up at JR Motorsports

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While some may have been surprised by JR Motorsports’ announcement Friday that it was changing one of its car numbers to the No. 8 in 2019, the move was sort of telegraphed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. three months ago.

How?

Twitter of course.

On Oct. 31, Earnhardt responded to a fan asking what Xfinity Series race he was planning to compete in this year.

He answered by saying he was “working toward” the Aug. 31 race at Darlington Raceway.

Minutes later he posted a graphic of concept art for a No. 8 car with a throwback paint scheme.

A couple of hours later, Earnhardt responded to a group of fans who had observed that JR Motorsports didn’t own the rights to the No. 8 in the Xfinity Series. Instead, they belonged to BJ McLeod Motorsports.

Then late Friday afternoon, not long after the news regarding the No. 8 was made official, Earnhardt posted a short video on Twitter explaining how the teams made the switch.

It was the result of Earnhardt’s desire to run the No. 8 at Darlington and NASCAR not allowing teams to swap numbers for one-off races.

“So we talked to BJ and asked if he’d be willing to give us the No. 8 for the whole season,” Earnhardt said. “He was nice enough to do it.”

The agreement is a recent one. BJ McLeod Motorsports announced it was expanding to three cars on Jan. 10, and listed the No. 8 as one of its cars with Matt Mills driving it.

BJ McLeod Motorsports will announce its new number next week.

This isn’t the first time Earnhardt has fielded the No. 8 in Xfinity. He fielded Martin Truex Jr. for consecutive series titles in 2004-05 with the No. 8 when he owned Chance 2 Motorsports.