Sammy Smith apparently has learned a little something from Kyle Busch and the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s mischievous side. Jesse Love should have learned a little something from Denny Hamlin before trying to rain on Smith’s parade.
The two prospects faced off Saturday. The result was an amusing conclusion to the season’s final ARCA Menards Series race. While Love didn’t exactly eat Smith’s dust, he did gag on the winner’s burnout after the finish.
Alex Bowman turned Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, triggering the FedEx driver
One of the more memorable moments of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season came at the end of the Martinsville playoff race. With seven laps to go, Hamlin — a playoff driver battling to make the Championship 4 — was leading when the already eliminated Bowman spun him on a move to the inside.
Bowman won, Hamlin finished 24th but still advanced to the Championship 4, and then the fireworks began. Hamlin famously drove to the frontstretch and parked in front of the No. 48 Chevy, even pushing Bowman’s car back a little bit, to delay the burnout celebration.
Was it childish? Sure. But it’s understandable why Hamlin was angry about a driver out of the hunt for the Cup Series championship dinging him. Bowman got Hamlin f on the left rear fender, where the laws of physics say a subsequent spin is more or less inevitable.
Though he didn’t win the race, Hamlin kind of won the celebration.
ARCA Menards driver Sammy Smith won the race and the celebration
The ARCA Menards Series is an important feeder system for the three national NASCAR series and provides support races on certain Cup Series weekends. This season’s final national race was at Toledo Speedway, where Nick Sanchez finished sixth to wrap up the overall title.
However, Sanchez wasn’t the story. That honor belonged to Sammy Smith and Jesse Love. Smith, 18, won the race by 0.538 seconds over Love. In the course of doing so, he clinched the owners’ championship for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The decisive move came with inside five laps to go. With Love and truck series playoff driver Grant Enfinger side-by-side in the lead, Smith came up and tapped Love’s back bumper. That nudged both lead cars up the track just enough for Smith to slide by on the inside without wrecking anyone. By all accounts, the move was bold but cleaner than a Jay Leno monologue in front of a church group.
Love, 17, didn’t respond well. Taking a page from Denny Hamlin’s playbook, he drove to where Smith was performing his celebratory burnout. But Smith was too quick and savvy. He wheeled around to put his rear bumper toward Love’s Toyota and went into maximum burnout mode, directing a plume of white smoke at his adversary. It was exactly what one might expect from a young (or even a current) Kyle Busch.
Smith pulled away, drove another lap, and returned to where Love had exited his car. Love yanked down Smith’s window net and fired off a punch or two before track officials intervened. Love was put in a bear hug and moved out of the way.
Sammy Smith is already on the NASCAR radar
Sammy Smith is a Toyota development driver and someone to watch. His connections to the manufacturer and Kyle Busch undoubtedly influenced the decision by Joe Gibbs Racing to give Smith up to eight races this season in the No. 18 Toyota in the Xfinity Series.
Two appearances on big tracks ended in wrecks, and Smith exited his debut on the Road America course with mechanical issues late in the day. But his average finish in the four other races thus far has been 9.3, with a best of third place at Watkins Glen. Clearly, the youngster from Johnston, Iowa, has a future. The question now is where that future will be.
Busch is migrating his truck series team from Toyota to Chevrolet, so that’s not going to be a path to Smith’s first full-time gig. David Gilliland is switching his team’s trucks from Ford to Toyota, but it’s unclear whether Toyota will place its development drivers there or someplace else.
And then there’s the Xfinity Series. Joe Gibbs Racing, the only meaningful Toyota team in the second-tier series, is losing Brandon Jones to Kaulig Racing and undoubtedly will promote Ty Gibbs to the Cup Series. With at least two seats open and the relationship between JGR and the manufacturer, Smith seemingly is a candidate to bypass the trucks and take on a more meaningful role at JGR.
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