NASCAR should keep pushing on Xfinity driver limits

Shortly after Justin Allgaier won the Phoenix Xfinity race on Saturday, Motorsport.com’s Jim Utter turned to me in the media center and gave me crap for a tweet implying the race was good because an Xfinity driver won.

Utter observed the race was good either way — and it still would have been a good race even if a Cup driver like Ryan Blaney or Erik Jones had edged Allgaier for the win.

So would I have claimed it was a bad outcome, Utter asked, if a Cup guy won?

It’s a fair argument, but I’ll own my viewpoint: No matter what happens or how exciting the race is, if it’s a Cup guy in Xfinity victory lane, I won’t like it.

In that sense, Saturday was a good race. Allgaier hadn’t won since 2012, and he won on a day when veteran Cup drivers (five years or more of experience) were banned from participating.

And yeah, if a Cup guy won, I wouldn’t have said it was a “good” race.

A true racer would judge the racing off the action — not the participants — so I realize that exposes me a bit. But I’ve just never been able to get pumped about watching Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano moonlight in a series and suck all the oxygen out of the room. Nothing against them personally, but I just don’t find it interesting when they win a minor-league race.

After the race, I asked Allgaier if the absence of the veteran Cup guys changed the dynamic on Saturday. Yes and no, he said.

On one hand, he said, the typically strong cars driven by those Cup stars — like from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing — were still in the race with excellent drivers. They weren’t easy to beat, and it was a “dogfight,” Allgaier said.

On the other hand…

“Kyle is really good here, so one would have to think he’d be up front battling it out,” Allgaier said.

And he was nowhere to be found. So was that a good thing?

“I think it certainly changes the way the race looks,” winning team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “When Kyle in particular is in these races, he’s got such a great chance to win. The race from second on back is still probably as exciting, but he usually doesn’t make much of a race out of it. When he’s in the field, he doesn’t hardly get challenged by a lot of the teams.”

Busch fans complain the media just doesn’t like it when Busch wins, as if people are OK with any other Cup driver. Personally, I don’t feel it’s an Anybody But Kyle situation when it comes to who I want to see in victory lane.

But Utter was right to poke holes in my argument that it’s all Cup guys who I have an issue with, because it’s certainly a different feeling when a Suarez or Jones or Blaney wins vs. a Busch or Keselowski or Logano. I admit that.

Still, my thoughts haven’t changed since I used this as the topic for my very first NASCAR column in 2004: Cup drivers should not be allowed to race in the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series.

There’s zero value to anyone but those teams who sell sponsorship around it; everyone else loses.

Invest in Xfinity by allowing the lower series drivers to build their own storylines and rivalries — “Names Are Made Here,” after all — and let the series have a completely unique identity.

NASCAR has been taking baby steps over the years — Cup drivers can’t run for points (2011), Cup drivers can’t race at Homestead (2016), veteran Cup drivers limited to 10 races (2017), etc. — but it can’t stop now.

But my fear is after seeing a positive result like Saturday, officials will say, “OK, we’ve fixed it and we don’t need to go any further.”

It could have easily been a Cup driver in victory lane, though, so it’s still just putting Band-Aids on a wounded series that needs stitches.

Ban Cup drivers from Xfinity races — period — and the series will be much better off.

 

12 Questions with Garrett Smithley

The 12 Questions interviews continue this week with Garrett Smithley, driver of the No. 0 car for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. This interview is available in both written and podcast form.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I think you have to have natural ability. I started racing very late compared to a lot of guys. I started at 15 in Bandoleros and Legend cars. When I started racing, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have family that came from a racing background. I’m a first generation racer; my dad never raced. It’s a wonder we went to victory lane at all and won championships.

So I think it has a ton to do with natural ability. I think now that I’m in NASCAR the last few years, racing some Truck races, last year running pretty much a full season with JD Motorsports and coming back for a second full season, I think that’s when I’m really going to have to put in the work.

There’s only so much you can do on your natural ability side, so now I have to work at how to adapt to these tracks, how to adapt to these cars, how to make my car better. Anybody can drive a good-handling race car, it’s those who have to work at how to make that race car better (who stand out). My natural ability has gotten me to this point, now the hard work is going to get me to the next level.

If you started racing so late, how do you think you picked it up so fast? Did you just learn from watching races as a fan?

I think it had a lot to do with watching the sport for so long, going to short track races. My very first stock car race was at Pocono in an ARCA race, so I never did any short track Late Model stuff. I just did Bandolero and Legend cars. I think it was a combination of my ability to adapt and get in the car and know what to do and also just be that sponge.

I’m not that driver that says, “Oh, I know everything.” If somebody has been in the sport for 20 or 30 years — even 10 years — if they tell me something, I’m going to listen to that. And I’m going to take that to heart and apply it to what I’m doing. That’s just how I’ve always been.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I have fun with everything I do. Being in NASCAR, I don’t take it for granted. It’s such an amazing opportunity to be at this level, be at the second-highest stock car series in the world behind the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. I just have so much fun, and I love social media. I love being on Snapchat and Twitter and I love being vocal and interacting with fans. So I just think if you follow me, I have a good time, so I hope my good time translates to fans having good times.

We had a lot of fun last year with the 0 car doing the whole “Number Nuthin” thing. We have Nuthin Nation going. So come on over to Nuthin Nation; we’re having a blast.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Probably the sponsorship search, to be honest. For me, I’m pretty much making calls and dialing for dollars (during the week), trying to get sponsors in for JD Motorsports. We have some really great partners with Flex Seal and G&K Services and some of my partners I’ve brought from last year — KY FAME and Mubea — but it’s never enough.

Being a small three-car team, competing against Gibbs and RCR and JR Motorsports, it’s tough. It’s kind of the David and Goliath thing. So we always are trying to get more support. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I’m searching for sponsors and trying to get new partners to help us out to compete with those guys. And then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I’m on the road and here at the racetrack.

But I’ve learned a ton doing that part. I’ve learned very early in my career that to be successful as a race car driver, you have to worry about the business side of it and the marketing side of it. That’s one thing I’ve really taken to heart. When I stop focusing on going racing all the time and being so obsessed with that and started focusing on the business side of it, that’s when I started becoming successful.

Do you cold call people and just hope it works out?

Yeah. So many times, you get 1,000 “nos” before you get that one “yes.” When that one “yes” comes and it’s a big thing, it’s huge.

I’ll sit there and go on Google Maps, look up where we’re racing — especially if we’re doing a standalone Xfinity race — and I’m looking at companies that are around the track and I’m calling, I’m sending emails, I’m doing the whole thing.

How do you deal with the rejection that comes with that? It has to be discouraging at times.

When I was a kid, I was really, really shy. And I was terrified of phone calls. And still to this day, I’m not scared of them, but I still get a little anxiety when I pick up the phone and call somebody for the first time.

You’ve just got to take it with a grain of salt. You’ve got to really realize what you’re doing it for and the payoff when you get to the track on Friday and Saturday and you run that car at a 190 mph. That’s the payoff and that’s why we do it.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

I think maybe this answer might change, maybe if I get to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level. But right now, I mean, yeah. I remember the very first time I got recognized out of my suit. I just thought that was so cool. I think there’s definitely a right way to do it.

We’re always out to dinner when (my parents) come to the racetrack. My mom and dad are very supportive and they’re always involved. Of course, when we’re out and a waiter or waitress asks, “Oh, are you guys in for the race?” (My mom says) “Oh yeah, my son is a NASCAR driver!” I’m always just like, “Oh no.” So that’s a little funny.

But I think there’s a right way to do it. If they come over and ask for the autograph, as long as if (when) you sign and take pictures, they don’t linger, I think that’s fine.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Oh, there’s so many stories. I think just the stories of all the guys behind the scenes. The driver stories always get told on where they started and where they came from and how they got up the ladder. But I think some of the crew guys that work so hard — especially our JD Motorsports team. We’ve got 14 or 15 guys that come out to the racetrack every week — for three cars. And there are teams with 15 guys for one car.

I think the story of our team and what they do at the shop and how hard they’ve worked all offseason — and I mean, that’s across the board, that’s every team, all the way up to the top. These guys work so hard week in and week out, and I think that story needs to be told a little bit more.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Matt DiBenedetto. He and Ryan Ellis are always hanging out. They’ve been trying to get me to hang out all weekend. They’ve got the whole PR/driver duo thing going on. They’re fun. Ryan just recently got engaged and they had me over for their engagement party and we had a Mario Kart tournament. So we had a good time doing that.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Definitely. I come from a theater background, and when I was 6 or 7 years old, I did my first play with my mom. My parents were always very instrumental in putting us — me and my brother (who is two years younger) in everything. We sang at church, we danced, we did theater, we played baseball, we played football — all kinds of stuff.

They never pushed me to do one certain thing, so it’s kind of crazy when I finally got to the point when I said, “Racing is what I want to do,” they were supportive of it. They could only help so much, but they were always supportive.

So being in theater, I was in plays when I was in high school and I did leads, and there’d be times when I would race in the afternoon, then leave and book it to the theater and do a play that night.

So knowing the similarities behind it, it’s just a different performance. We’re still entertaining — getting the fans involved on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. We’re always trying to be entertaining and fun. I think that’s a lot of what’s missing, and that’s what I like to do.

I like to show my personality. I like to be out there, I like to do crazy things. I did some crazy dress-up thing at Darlington for the throwback weekend. I wore a big afro and platform shoes. You can go look on my Facebook. It’s fun.

What’s a notable role you played in a play or musical?

My very first big lead role — I was a junior in high school — was Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That was so cool to do. And that was pretty much my dream role.

One thing about that: It was really cool, because me and Charlie have a lot of similarities. He was always thinking positive. And my motto on every car I drive is, “Patience, never give up.” So it’s kind of that mantra, and it was really cool to play it on stage.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I don’t think I’ve ever given the middle finger. That’s just not in my character. I mean, I’ll give hand signals like, “Hey, what are you doing?” I’ll get frustrated. (But) I’m not that guy to curse and yell and stuff like that.

I’m super competitive and I want to be the best, but I’ve always been that guy to talk things out. If something is going on, (I’ll say), “Hey man, what was that all about?” Or “Hey, give me some slack.” I only had one or two problems on the track last year, and we talked it out, and it was good afterward. I’ve never (given the finger) and I hope I don’t.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, 100 percent. We race 33 times a year in the Xfinity Series. If you’re constantly focusing on all the negative and, “Oh, I owe that guy,” you’re never going to be successful. Even that payback list — yeah, you always keep that in the back of your mind (and) maybe you race a little harder because of something they did the previous week. But at the end of the day, if you don’t let it go, you’re going to be fixated on it. My policy is just let it go. Definitely, if it happens again, you may want to say or do something. But you definitely show different guys different respect. If they cut you some slack, you’ll cut them some slack next time.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

When I was 15 or 16 and racing Bandeleros and just starting racing, a buddy of mine was friends with Kyle Petty. And Kyle Petty showed up to dinner, and that was really, really cool, because that was the first time I had really met a NASCAR driver. I haven’t really had many famous dinners, but that one kind of sticks out to me. Because it was like the first time, like, “Oh my gosh, that’s Kyle Petty. That’s so cool.”

He’s a very engaging and friendly guy.

Yeah. He’s always had that personality and is definitely somebody I look up to. My all-time hero in racing was Dale Jarrett. I got to meet him. I had an incident on the track at Kentucky in practice where I got really, really sideways and slid and had a big save. And Dale was like, “Hey, that was awesome. He made an awesome save. I don’t know how he did that.” I was like, “Wow, that’s my hero talking about me making a save on track.” That was so, so cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Probably my organization skills and time management. I’ve never been really (good about) being on time and things like that. I know that’s kind of important. And just organization. I’m kind of a messy person, and everybody says I’m ADD or ADHD. I’ve never been diagnosed or anything like that, but I can get a little scatterbrained at times. I think that’s why I’m so good in the race car, because when I get in, I’m so laser-focused on what I’m doing that it just calms my brain down. So I’d definitely like to be more organized.

12. The question from the last person was Martin Truex Jr. His question is, “Who do you think the team to beat in Cup is this year?”

You gotta say Gibbs, right? I mean, last year, the Xfinity Series, Gibbs had it all wrapped up. Nobody could really touch them until really the end of the year. I think you’ve got to say Gibbs for sure.

And do you have a question for the next interview?

I’m hoping it’s a veteran driver. I’d like to ask when they were a rookie, what are some things they wish they did differently to better themselves?

And maybe follow me on Twitter.

NASCAR Marketing Strategy: Comcast Xfinity

This is the first in an occasional series about how NASCAR sponsors are using their marketing opportunities in the sport. Up first: Xfinity, which relaunched its Xfinity Stream app this week and is making a big push to get the word out. Matt Lederer, Comcast’s executive director of sports marketing, spoke on behalf of the company.

What do you see as the identity of the Xfinity Series, particularly in light of fewer Cup drivers being able to participate in the races this season?

We love this idea of “Names Are Made Here.” We love not only the format changes, but some of the driver restriction changes. We want more Xfinity drivers hoisting the trophy in victory lane, because we think that’s good for the sport.

We’re excited Stewart-Haas is bringing in a full-time Xfinity car, Junior (Motorsports) is expanding to four full-time Xfinity cars. We knew making those changes were all going to be steps in growing more drivers into the series. I’d expect we’re going to see more Xfinity drivers in victory lane this season.

How does the Dash 4 Cash idea fit into what you guys do, and why is it so important to you?

What Dash 4 Cash provides is the ability to focus on four Xfinity drivers in those weeks — so it supports the “Names Are Made Here.” Even if the guy doesn’t get into victory lane, that allows you guys (in the media) and the networks to focus in on someone whose name is being made.

Also, we get a lot more brand mention and visibility on those weekends. The idea of the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash is good exposure for us.

Lastly, the drivers like it. They really do. And they’re so good to us, we want to make sure we do something for them.

What’s your strategy in how you talk to NASCAR fans?

We like to have a brand voice of being the host. The Xfinity brand, if you’re a customer, you’re going to use it hundreds of times a day — whether it’s the Wi-Fi, whether it’s TV, whether it’s your phone (with the streaming app). What we want to convey is we’re NASCAR fans, too. We want to host you on a great adventure, and that adventure is going to include all of our products.

We’ve had a three-year strategy, and if anything, we’re ahead of where we wanted to be. Everyone said, “The fans are going to know you, they’ll love you, they’ll be loyal to you.” They have, and now we’re going to take that love and hopefully turn them into customers. But we’re not changing anything about the way we talk to NASCAR fans.

What’s something you guys have done that worked better than you thought and something that didn’t work as well as you thought?

The Comcast Community Champion Award that we give out at the end of the year has been amazing. We were given — as part of our sponsorship — the right to brand an award. Some sponsors do a great job. So how do we stand out? How do we break through?

The way it’s morphed into something amazing has probably been my favorite thing to work on as part of this partnership. We try very hard with our company brand to be a human brand and a compassionate brand. The attention and overwhelming outpouring of emotion we get for that award, I never anticipated it.

As far as the other part of the question, we love to do retail store appearances, but we’re still getting better at those. What we’ve learned is in order to really maximize those is we’ve got to get the outreach out there earlier that, “Hey, Brennan Poole is going to be in the Richmond store on Wednesday.” So how do we leverage our radio assets? How do we leverage our TV assets, our print assets to make people aware? So getting ahead of that is going to help us do those things and make them better.