Sammy Smith claims Rookie of the Year title in the NXS with a top-10 finish at Phoenix

NKP #18: Sammy Smith, Joe Gibbs Racing, Pilot Flying J Toyota Supra

John Hunter Nemechek won the first stage, led five times for 66 laps and was in contention for the championship on the final overtime restart before suffering a tire issue and finishing 28th to end up fourth in the final championship standings.

Sammy Smith (ninth) and Kaz Grala (10th) led Toyota with top-10 finishes in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Smith clinched the Rookie of the Year title with his ninth-place finish, while Grala set career-highs in top-10 finishes for himself and his team – Sam Hunt Racing – with his ninth top-10 run of the year.

Toyota Racing Post-Race Recap

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Phoenix Raceway

Race 33 of 33 – 200 miles, 200 laps


1st, Cole Custer*

2nd, Sheldon Creed*

3rd, Justin Allgaier*

4th, Riley Herbst*

5th, Sam Mayer*






*non-Toyota driver


SAMMY SMITH, No. 18 Pilot Flying J Toyota GR Supra, Joe Gibbs Racing

Finishing Position: 9th

How was your race?

“Yeah, it was okay. We got the pole and had a good, okay first stage. Just struggled with the balance. Came in, sped. That was my fault. Went to the back, kind of made our way up slowly and was looking forward to that next pit stop because the guys were doing really good, but had the fire and had to start over and actually had to go through the field. It was an okay day, just thank you to everyone at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Toyota for these last couple of years and looking forward to the future.”

KAZ GRALA, No. 26 Ruedebusch Toyota GR Supra, Sam Hunt Racing

Finishing Position: 10th

Can you take me through tonight and your first season with Sam Hunt Racing?
“We really haven’t had the best of luck, but we’ve had speed. This last third of the year, we’ve been a top-10 car every single race, and a handful of those we’ve had taken away for various crazy reasons – accidents, mechanical, just general bad luck. We have had that speed. We’ve been competitive. We’ve raced with the good cars every week here lately. I think that has shown how strong we are. Sam Hunt Racing has come a long way throughout the season. I’m proud of everyone here. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with everyone. It was a great year. Glad to be full time in my first time in the Xfinity Series, and I think we can leave this year being proud of a lot. Nine top-10’s, and two top-fives, but probably should have been a whole handful more than that. Really, really good year.”

JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK, No. 20 Pye Barker Fire & Safety Toyota GR Supra, Joe Gibbs Racing

Finishing Position: 28th

What happened on the final restart?

“I just drove down in and it didn’t turn. I don’t know if we had a right front start going down or what exactly it was. I just drove in and it didn’t turn. Man, I hate it for our guys, hate it for Toyota and TRD. Our Toyota GR Supra was really, really fast. You drive down and it doesn’t turn and that’s not a very good thing. Once we got in the fence there off of (turn) 2 it hurt the right sides even more. I think we had a right rear start going down as well. It sucks to end up where we finished. Had a really strong effort all day. I’m proud of this whole 20 crew – I’m proud of this whole group. Just sucks to end our season this way, but overall, a really successful season for this 20 team and Joe Gibbs Racing. I was proud to be behind the wheel of this 20 car all year. Seven wins is a lot to be proud of. One race doesn’t define us as a group. It’s really just another race. If you win, you come out the champion. That’s what we told ourselves all week and it almost happened. Overall, I’m really proud of this group. I’m proud of myself. We put ourselves in contention and that’s really all you can do. Our car was as fast as Xfinity 10 G on that restart. I needed it to turn a little bit better and the results might have been different.”

At what point did you lose track of the race car a bit?

“Just keeping up with the race track at night. The 00 (Cole Custer) got better the second segment of the race. To start the third stage, we were better at the beginning of it, towards the middle of the run and then late in the run he kind of came on. We started coming back at the end there with 30 to go before we pitted. Just ever-evolving race track, always changing, trying to stay on top of adjustments. Like I said, proud of the effort from this team. I’m proud of myself. Nothing to hang our heads on this for sure. We gave it a hell of an effort. Made it to the Final 4. We had a shot on the final restart. It sucks but looking forward to next year and I’m looking forward to getting in the Cup car.”

What happened after you cleared Cole Custer on the final restart?

“I got a hell of a jump. I cleared him in (turn) 1 and then when I got to turn 1 it didn’t turn. I’m not sure what was going on or what happened. Had a heck of a jump and had him cleared. When the front tires won’t turn it’s not good. I’m not sure if that’s on me. I’ve got to go back and look at some data or if we had a right front going down or what. Man, it sucks to end our season this way but overall, we had a really successful season. I’m proud of the effort from this 20 crew and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing. I’m proud of the effort, I’m proud of myself. We put ourselves in contention and just came up short. One race doesn’t define us. I feel like the season showed what we can do, and we were able to execute all year. Just sucks to end it this way.”

Are you frustrated to end the season this way after seven wins this year?

“I’m still smiling. It’s frustrating to end the championship run that way to not come out the champion when we felt like we were the best car all year. Overall, a really solid effort by us. Seven wins is nothing to hang your head over. We won a lot of races this year, we led a lot of laps, had a really good average finish. Overall, just a really solid year. I’m proud to be behind the wheel of this 20 car this year. Heck of an effort for the whole year of 2023.”

Golin for Toyota Racing PR

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