Chandler Smith entered Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway with momentum very much on his side, after winning the track’s NASCAR Xfinity Series event the day prior.
However, as several drivers breaking into the NASCAR Cup Series in recent years have documented, there is an astronomical learning curve to be had between the two divisions, with longer races, completely different cars, and a more competitive field.
So, for Smith to score a finish of 17th in his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Richmond Raceway, driving a third, part-time entry for an organization that is fairly new to NASCAR’s top level, has to feel damn near as good as that victory on Saturday.
To make things even more impressive for Smith, who is scheduled to return to the series two more times during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, the 20-year-old driver hadn’t made a lap in the NextGen car at Richmond before Sunday’s race.
Starting from last, Smith was lucky enough to have the benefit of a competition caution, which guaranteed him at least a 30-lap run before having the chance to make adjustments on the No. 13 Chevrolet Camaro, all while staying on the lead lap.
By the time the caution was displayed, Smith had started to get his bearings, climbing five spots and finishing the race’s first stint in 32nd. Throughout the remainder of the first stage, the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular would hover around 30th.
Smith was able to complete the first 150 laps of Sunday’s 400-lap contest without being lapped before race-leader Kyle Larson finally made his way around the QuickTie-sponsored Chevrolet.
Despite the negative implications of being put a lap down, that also served as a noticeable turning point for Smith, who immediately saw his lap times dramatically get faster, as he shadowed some of the drivers competing for positions inside the top five.
From that point forward, Smith began to slowly but surely creep up the running order, despite getting a pit road penalty just after the midway point of the event, running in the range of 26th to 30th for much of the third quarter of the race.
.@SpotterBrett: "How's it driving". @CSmithDrive: "Solid. Best it's been all day."@SpotterBrett: "Yeah, you're ******* flying."
He's P25.#ToyotaOwners400 pic.twitter.com/2G0MjoThwd
— Kaulig Racing (@KauligRacing) April 2, 2023
The final 100 laps of Sunday’s event was the time when Smith and Kaulig Racing were both able to persevere and continue their pursuit up the running order. The NASCAR Xfinity Series rookie continued gaining positions as the runs continued to stretch out.
Following the final cycle of green-flag pit stops, Smith had climbed his way into 22nd, while remaining only a single lap behind the leaders. It was at this point, that the Georgia-born driver had a little bit of positive luck.
A caution flag with less than 30 laps left in the event, allowed Smith and crew chief Eddie Pardue to make the bold strategy call of taking the wave around, while all of the lead-lap drivers came to the pit road, leaving the debutant on old tires hoping for a yellow.
That yellow came almost immediately, as William Byron got turned around by Christopher Bell heading into the first corner on the restart. As a result, Smith was put back on the lead lap, with tires slightly fresher than the cars in front of him.
Restarting in the 22nd position with 14 laps remaining, Smith mirrored his strength from the NASCAR Xfinity Series – restarts – and was able to make several passes in the closing laps of the event, taking over 17th from Tyler Reddick with three to go.
“In the first half of the race, we struggled with the balance of the car, with both dirty air and getting in clean air,” Smith said. “We kept working on it, and my crew chief, Eddie (Pardue), and the pit crew made adjustments that eventually helped the car get better. I hate the fact that the race was only 400 miles. I wish it was 800 because we were really good in the end. It was a good learning curve for myself and this Kaulig Racing team.”
After an excruciatingly-long weekend of racing, where Smith completed 650 laps around Richmond Raceway, Smith will get a week off before the NASCAR Xfinity Series contests its next event at Martinsville Speedway.
In terms of the NASCAR Cup Series, Smith won’t return to the No. 13 until the NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, before rounding out his season in the Fall at Talladega Superspeedway and Phoenix Raceway.