|SCREENSHOT: USA, captured by @William_Nagel_|
by Brock Beard
Sammy Smith picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Friday (and Saturday)’s Wawa 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at the Daytona International Speedway when his #18 Pilot / Flying J Toyota crashed after 14 of 118 laps.
The finish came in Smith’s fifth series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 12th for the #18, the 156th for Toyota, and the 369th from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 51st for the #18, the 382nd for Toyota, and the 1,302nd from a crash.
The 18-year-old racer from Johnston, Iowa has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of professional stock car racing. In 2019, he made a splash in late models, claiming the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing championship at the New Smyrna Speedway. Signed into a development program with Kyle Busch Motorsports, he nearly scored his first CARS Pro Late Model Tour victory at Jennerstown, where he finished runner-up to Bubba Pollard. This was followed by a breakout 2021 in ARCA regional and national competition, where he scored three wins on the short tracks. Two more ARCA short track wins came this year, which has seen him skip the Truck Series and try his luck in the XFINITY Series.
With continuing backing from TMC, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Pilot / Flying J – brands which each became synonymous with Michael Annett during his own NASCAR career – Smith made his XFINITY debut at Road America. He qualified 8th and was on his way to a solid finish when his engine blew in the final three laps. He started 5th at Pocono, but this time he crashed hard in Turn 1, leaving him 31st. Finally, at Michigan, he led his first lap and came home in 12th. This led to a breakout performance just last week at Watkins Glen, where he avoided the typical road course chaos to finish 3rd behind Cup veterans Kyle Larson and A.J. Allmendinger.
Coming into Friday, Smith had yet to make a superspeedway start, and was set to learn under the lights of Daytona. Unfortunately, the inevitable late summer rains washed out both practice and qualifying, meaning he’d have to roll off 3rd without a single lap on track.
With 43 entrants for 38 spots, Friday also turned out to be a short afternoon for the five teams that failed to qualify. This group included C.J. McLaughlin in the third RSS Racing car, the #28 Sci Aps Ford, Joe Nemechek in the second Sam Hunt Racing car, the #24 Fleetwing Toyota, plus Ronnie Bassett, Jr. in the #77 Jerry Hunt Supercenter Chevrolet, Tim Viens – swapped in for Brennan Poole in the #47 Barker Construction Chevrolet – and Josh Williams. Williams had just reunited with DGM Racing in his old ride, the #92 Alloy Employer Services Chevrolet, but the part-time effort missed the cut. Williams would still race Friday as he took the place of Patrick Emerling in an unsponsored #5 Ford for B.J. McLeod Motorsports – a ride left without backing after Natalie Decker’s CBD sponsor failed to receive NASCAR approval in time. The driver change would incur Williams a tail-end penalty, joined by three others for unapproved adjustments: 16th-place Daniel Hemric in the #11 Cirkul – Water Your Way Chevrolet, 34th-place Jesse Iwuji in the #34 Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Chevrolet, and original 38th and last-place starter Justin Haley in the #14 DaaBin Store Chevrolet. Haley was entered in a new fourth team for Kaulig Racing, which still secured a starting spot thanks to his win in this very race last year.
After further track drying efforts pushed the command to start engines to 10:38 P.M. local time, Haley had further issues – this time with the radio. He made at least two stops during the pace laps, but the issue wasn’t entirely resolved. While he could hear his team, he could do so only barely over irritating static. Coming to the green flag, another driver had issues. This time, it was 28th-place J.J. Yeley in the #66 IEC / My Electric Career Chevrolet. A reported power steering issue was to blame, and he returned to the track nearly a half-lap behind when the green flag dropped. Crossing the stripe, Yeley was a full 21.082 seconds back of the leader, and at the end of Lap 1 was a full 13.110 seconds behind the car in 37th, teammate Timmy Hill in the #13 Coble Enterprises / VSI Racing Chevrolet.
Over the next several laps, the stranded Yeley continued to lose touch with the rest of the field, even as the last few cars in the lead pack began to trail off into single-file lines. By Lap 4, Yeley reported his car was “hitting the splitter pretty good down the backstraightaway,” but was handling well in the corners. Hill, meanwhile, had dropped Matt Mills to 37th in the #78 J.F. Electric Toyota, though Mills got back by on Lap 10. The next time by, Yeley had dropped to 30.764 seconds back of the lead and 25.048 back of 37th-place Hill. Yeley’s team anticipated a wreck would draw the caution, saving them from losing a lap – which is exactly what happened.
Coming down to complete Lap 16, Sammy Smith was fifth in line on the inside lane, having crossed the stripe just 1.435 seconds back of the lead the previous time by around the 19th spot. Fighting a loose-handling car since the drop of the green flag, Smith broke loose off the fourth corner and slammed the SAFER barrier just before the pit road entrance. Smith’s car skated to a stop in the grass with heavy damage to the left-front and left-rear corners. He climbed out with no apparent injury, and in his interview took the blame for the incident, saying he’d made a mistake.
Smith remained the only driver out of the race until the final 16 laps, when the first of five massive multi-car accidents dwindled the field to just a few survivors, forcing an already delayed race into three overtime finishes. The Bottom Five was promptly filled by 37th-place Joe Graf, Jr., whose #07 GTECHNIQ Ford t-boned a wrecking Sheldon Creed in the 36th-place #2 Whelen Chevrolet in a pileup that also collected 35th-place John Hunter Nemechek in the #26 Freedom 13 Toyota. Rounding out the group was Sam Mayer, whose #1 Accelerate Pros Talent Chevrolet crashed in a separate incident involving all but one of his JR Motorsports teammates.
Jeremy Clements and Timmy Hill headline a night for the underdogs
Coming out victorious was Jeremy Clements, whose #51 One Stop / ASE Chevrolet crossed the stripe well after midnight – and thus five years to the day of his equally dramatic first win at Road America.
Timmy Hill and J.J. Yeley – who in the early laps battled for last place – both found themselves running nose-to-tail behind race leader Austin Hill for what turned out to be the final restart of the race. A reported electrical issue caused Austin to stall in front of the duo when the green flag dropped, ultimately dropping Austin to 14th and Yeley to 9th. But Timmy stayed with the leaders, and even inched past A.J. Allmendinger when Riley Herbst’s spin caused the race to finish under caution. With that, Timmy Hill finished 2nd – just the second Top Five of his XFINITY career and a new career-best, improving on his 3rd-place run in February of 2020.
After last year’s debacle sparked by a chant that was erroneously attributed to him, Brandon Brown reunited with his longtime sponsor Larry’s Lemonade, which promised to work out a deal to back the Brandonbilt Motorsports team should they pull off the win. Multiple times throughout the race, Brown contended for the lead, only to come up just short. On the final overtime finish, he was again in the right spot, only to run out of time and finish 4th. This stands as Brown’s second top-five finish of the year, following his 3rd-place showing at Loudon.
Taking 5th despite significant damage to the splitter of his #44 Clermont Lakes / Alt-Tab Capital Chevrolet was Sage Karam, his first top-five finish in just his 11th series start. His best run prior was 13th, just last week in Watkins Glen.
Ryan Vargas earned a career-best 6th-place finish in his white #6 National Metering Services Chevrolet – just the second Top Ten of his XFINITY career and first since his sterling 8th-place showing at Texas in the fall of 2020. Prior to Friday, Vargas had never finished better than 18th at Daytona.
One week after a brutal wreck exiting the Esses at Watkins Glen, Alex Labbe finished 8th in his #36 Can-Am Chevrolet, a new season-best and the second Top Ten of 2022, following his 10th in Portland.
Kyle Sieg was involved in at least two of the night’s cautions, at one point losing the hood of his #38 Trouble Spirits / Mafe Ford. Undaunted, Sieg still took home 10th – his first career Top Ten in just his 15th career start. His previous best finish was 16th, which came twice earlier this year at Las Vegas and Atlanta.
In 29 combined Truck and XFINITY Series starts, active serviceman and NASCAR team co-owner Jesse Iwuji had never once finished better than 17th. In fact, his best XFINITY finish was just 22nd at Road America earlier this year. But with sponsorship from race sponsor Coca-Cola Zero Sugar as part of a military initiative, Iwuji managed to avoid the night’s chaos and finish a strong 11th. This is now the second-best finish by Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, trailing only the 8th-place Loudon finish by co-driver Kyle Weatherman.
Myatt Snider left Daytona in February after a terrifying flip into the catchfence that ended the race under the caution. This time around in the #31 TaxSlayer Chevrolet, Snider overcame a spin in Turn 1 to finish 12th for Jordan Anderson Racing, a team still struggling to expand to two cars after back-to-back DNQs by their #32 entry. While not a season-best finish, it is Snider’s best since his runner-up finish on the rainy Portland track in June.
Also quietly consistent was Joey Gase, who matched his season-best 16th-place finish from Talladega in the #35 NCPC.org Ford for his co-owned Emerling-Gase Motorsports effort. Combined with Brad Perez’ 20th-place debut last week at Watkins Glen, that means the first back-to-back Top 20 finishes for the team since this spring’s races at Atlanta and COTA.
Among the drivers who very nearly joined this group was David Starr, whose #08 EVERFI / Special Report Ford worked its way into the Top Ten before it was collected in a pileup entering the tri-oval on Lap 99. That same wreck collected Anthony Alfredo, who seconds earlier had pulled his #23 Pit Boss Grills Chevrolet to 2nd place behind Daniel Hemric. Matt Mills, another contender for last place in the early laps, was still running around the 10th spot a full ten laps into “overtime” when a crashing Landon Cassill crossed his path in Turn 3, leaving Mills a disappointing 24th.
*This marked the first XFINITY last-place finish for the #18 since October 5, 2019, when Harrison Burton’s #18 DEX Imaging Toyota crashed after 2 laps of the Drive Sober 200 at Dover. The number had never before finished last in a XFINITY race at Daytona.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #18-Sammy Smith / 14 laps / crash
37) #07-Joe Graf, Jr. / 82 laps / crash
36) #2-Sheldon Creed / 82 laps / crash
35) #26-John Hunter Nemechek / 82 laps / crash
34) #1-Sam Mayer / 91 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alpha Prime Racing (4)
2nd) JR Motorsports (3)
3rd) JD Motorsports, Mike Harmon Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
4th) Big Machine Racing, B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, Our Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Sam Hunt Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (17)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (2)
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP