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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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State Water Heaters to sponsor Jeb Burton’s 5 races with JR Motorsports

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JR Motorsports on Wednesday announced that State Water Heaters will sponsor Jeb Burton’s five-race stint in the No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro in the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series.

State Water Heaters has been involved with the Burton family since 2007, starting first with Jeb’s father, Ward Burton, in NASCAR Cup and the NASCAR Truck Series, as well as with Jeb Burton in the Truck Series and in Late Models.

“I’m very excited to continue my partnership with State Water Heaters and make the introduction between them and JR Motorsports,” Jeb Burton said in a media release. “State has been an amazing partner over the years and has become family – helping me from the very start of my career going back to Late Models.”

Burton will debut the black, orange and blue No. 8 State Water Heaters Chevrolet Camaro at Texas Motor Speedway (March 30), as well as Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 25), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Sept. 7), a return stint to Texas (Nov. 2) and the season finale at Miami (Nov. 16). Alsco and Ultimate Headers will serve as associate partners for those same five races.

Burton will share driving duties of the No. 8 through the course of the season with Spencer Gallagher, Ryan Preece, Ryan Truex and Zane Smith.

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Drivers gear up for important two-day test in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host a major two-day organizational test for Cup and Xfinity Series teams starting Thursday.

The test is significant because it will be the largest collection of teams to test the Cup Series’ 2019 rules package at the same time.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Brad Keselowski, who will take part in the test, on how the new package will be on track. “You’ll figure it out.”

There will be 21 drivers involved, including 16 Cup drivers and two full-time Xfinity drivers, Noah Gragson and Chase Briscoe. Ross Chastain, David Ragan and Drew Herring each will drive manufacture wheel force cars. Xfinity drivers Zane Smith and Riley Herbst will also be present.

The test, which is open to the public, will be from 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. ET Thursday and from 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. ET Friday.

On Thursday, the first of three drafting practice sessions will begin at 2 p.m ET. The other two drafting practice sessions are scheduled for 6 and 8 p.m. ET.

Friday will feature two drafting practice sessions at Noon and 2 p.m. ET.

Here’s who is involved in the test.

Cup Series Drivers
No. 00 – Landon Cassill, Starcom Racing, Chevrolet
No. 1 – Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
No. 2 – Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford
No. 3 – Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
No. 6 – Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
No. 13 – Ty Dillon, Germain Racing, Chevrolet
No. 14 – Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
No. 18 – Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
No. 21 – Paul Menard, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford
No. 43 – Bubba Wallace, Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 47 – Ryan Preece, JTG Racing, Chevrolet
No. 48 – Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 51 – Cody Ware, Rick Ware Racing, Chevrolet
No. 95 – Matt DiBenedetto, Leavine Family Racing, Toyota
Chevrolet Wheel Force car Ross Chastain, Chevrolet Racing
Ford Wheel Force car David Ragan, Ford Motor Company
Toyota Wheel Force car Drew Herring, Toyota Racing Development

Xfinity Series drivers
No. 8 Zane Smith, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 9 Noah Gragson, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 18 Riley Herbst, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
No. 98 Chase Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford

 

JR Motorsports reveals new car number, driver assignments

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JR Motorsports on Friday used the announcement of a car number change to reveal its driver lineup for a new No. 8 car in the Xfinity Series.

What was the No. 9 team in 2018 will become the No. 8 team in 2019 with an assortment of drivers including Zane Smith, Jeb Burton, Ryan Truex, Spencer Gallagher and Ryan Preece.

Noah Gragson, the rookie who was originally announced to take over the No. 1 Chevrolet, will now drive the No. 9.

Meanwhile, Michael Annett, who has driven the No. 5 since he joined JRM in 2017, will now drive the No. 1.

The No. 1 has history with the Annett family, as sprint-car racing legend Sammy Swindell drove it in a car owned by Michael’s father, Harrold Annett.

Only the car numbers are changing on Gragson’s and Annett’s cars. The previously announced crew chief and roster lineups will remain the same.

Justin Allgaier will continue to drive the No. 7.

MORE: JR Motorsports, GMS Racing join forces on driver development program

The No. 8 has a long history in the Earnhardt family, with team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving it in the Cup Series from 1999 – 2007. His grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, also drove it, as well as Junior’s father, Dale Earnhardt.

“Everybody remembers the number on the side of the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a press release. “The No. 8 is very special to me and to JR Nation. There’s a lot of history with the No. 8 in my family and in NASCAR. It’s time to write some new stories and continue to add to the number’s rich heritage.”

Taylor Moyer has been named the crew chief of the No. 8. Moyer, 31, joins JRM after serving as an engineer for Hendrick Motorsports on the cars driven by Kasey Kahne and William Byron.

Gallagher will race for JRM after stepping away from full-time race at the end of 2018 to move into a leadership role at GMS Racing. 

Preece drove for Joe Gibbs Racing part-time the last two seasons and will drive for JTG Daugherty Racing full-time in the Cup Series this season.

Smith, a member of NASCAR Next, is making his debut in the Xfinity Series this year.

Truex, the brother of Cup driver Martin Truex Jr., joins JRM after competing full-time for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2018. Truex Jr. won two Xfinity championships for Earnhardt while driving the No. 8 in 2004-05.

Burton, the son of former Cup driver Ward Burton, made three Xfinity starts for Richard Childress Racing last year.

Here’s when each driver will race the No. 8 this season. This makes up only 24 of the season’s 33 races.

Gallagher – Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 16), Talladega Superspeedway (April 27) and the return event at Daytona (July 5).

Preece – Atlanta Motor Speedway (Feb. 23), Auto Club Speedway (March 16), Pocono Raceway (June 1) and Watkins Glen International (Aug. 3)

Smith – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 2), Bristol Motor Speedway (April 6), both Richmond Raceway events (April 12 and Sept. 20), Dover International Speedway (May 4 and Oct. 5) and Iowa Speedway (June 16 and July 27)

Truex – ISM Raceway (March 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 14), Charlotte Motor Speedway (Sept. 28) and Kansas Speedway (Oct. 19)

Burton – Texas Motor Speedway (March 30 and Nov. 2), Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 25), Chicagoland Speedway (June 29) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 16)

JR Motorsports, GMS Racing partner on driver development program

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JR Motorsports and GMS Racing have established Drivers Edge Development, a program presented by Chevrolet and aimed at grooming the next generation of drivers through a tiered pipeline coupled with comprehensive off-track education.

The program will give drivers the opportunity to race in five types of development series with JRM or GMS-fielded entries. The program also provides added training to enhance professional growth off the track.

Although mainly performance-based, there are no set criteria for selection into the program.

The six drivers in the program this year are:

Noah Gragson (Xfinity driver at JR Motorsports)

John Hunter Nemechek (Xfinity driver at GMS Racing)

Zane Smith (Xfinity driver at JR Motorsports in eight races)

Sheldon Creed (Truck driver at GMS Racing)

Sam Mayer (Truck/ARCA/K&N driver for GMS Racing and Late Model driver for JR Motorsports)

Adam Lemke (Late Model driver for JR Motorsports)

The relationship between JR Motorsports and GMS Racing is not new. They have a technical alliance in the Xfinity Series.