With two late-season victories, Chandler Smith secured the Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year award in his first full-time NASCAR season.
Smith, 19, won at Bristol Motor Speedway in September to advance to the Round of 8 in the Playoffs and also won the season-finale at Phoenix Raceway. However, the season wasn’t all that smooth sailing for Smith, as he and his No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports team peaked late after a tough go of things earlier in the season.
“We just weren’t all clicking,” Smith said in a call with reporters. “We just weren’t consistent as far as showing up at the racetrack and being good. When we did show up at the racetrack, there was way too many mistakes being made. I mean, granted, we had the rookie stripes. So, I guess it was acceptable. But in my eyes, I still didn’t even accept that”.
Smith started off the season with a strong truck at Daytona in the NextEra Energy 250, but a blown tire took him out of contention late in the race.
“The one that really stung the most honestly, this whole season was probably Daytona,” Smith said. “Leading all those laps, and that was my first time at Daytona, and for the tire to go down like that… I was kind of bummed for quite a few weeks”.
From there, struggles continued for Smith. Finishes outside the top 10 in seven of the next eight races sunk him to 13th in points, well outside the playoff grid. However, finishes of fifth and sixth at Charlotte and Texas narrowed the gap to 10th place in the standings.
“I felt like we were realistically [a championship contender] going into the season,” Smith said. “And halfway through the season, I didn’t think we were”.
Smith finally found consistency in the second half of the season, and with a little help, he snuck into the playoffs. A second-place finish at Knoxville set him up for a relatively relaxed season-finale at Watkins Glen, but a disqualification jeopardized his hopes. Fortunately, Smith still made the playoffs.
A 28th place finish at Gateway put Smith in a must-win position at Bristol in the Round of 10 elimination race, and he did just that. Smith held off Grant Enfinger on a late restart to win his first-ever Truck Series race.
“All the resources that I’ve had, that Toyota’s provided for us has helped with that for sure,” Smith said. “Some of these tracks I’ve never been to, and don’t even know what I’m going to be balance wise, that I’ve had no laps there at all. And go out there and just let it rip. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. With practice, I strongly believe there’d be more win stickers above my name”.
Smith found himself in another must-win position at Martinsville with a spot in the Championship 4 on the line but fell just short with a fourth-place finish. With nothing to lose in the season-finale at Phoenix, Smith swept both stages and held off Stewart Friesen for his second victory of the season. The victory also clinched his Sunoco Rookie of the Year award.
“You only can get Rookie of the Year one time,” Smith said. “Going into the year, I kind of expected it. I was like, Okay, I got to get it. Like no matter what, there’s no excuse. Carson [Hocevar] had a really good year, he had a really, really good year. And he had the lead for the majority of the year I want to say.
“Those tracks definitely suit my driving style for sure. But, I don’t know, I think it’s more the fact of the matter that me and [crew chief] Danny [Stockman’s] relationship has gotten better. He started to trust my input more. I started to trust his input more. And the team started clicking”.
Although it’s the off-season, things won’t slow down for Smith any time soon. He’ll continue to race late model events like the Snowball Derby and spend much-needed time with family.
“All next season stuff still getting finalized. And hopefully, we’ll be all done in the next week or so,” Smith said. “It’s really put in perspective how blessed I am to have the loving wife that I have, the great family. We have two dogs…we have an amazing family, and I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world”.