NASCAR: Kyle Busch may have just made his best hire

By bringing back Chandler Smith, Kyle Busch may have just made the best hire he has ever made as a team owner in the NASCAR Truck Series.

Kyle Busch has a history of hiring young, promising drivers to his NASCAR Truck Series team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. Several of his recent full-time hires have ascended to the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series.

Bubba Wallace competed for the team for two seasons as a full-time driver back in 2013 and 2014. He now competes for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Cup Series. Erik Jones won the 2015 championship for the team. He is now a two-time Cup Series race winner and a teammate to Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing.

William Byron would have won the 2016 title for the team had it not been for an engine failure in the season’s penultimate race. He now competes for Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series. Christopher Bell won the 2017 championship for the team and was promoted to the Cup Series with the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Leavine Family Racing ahead of the 2020 season.

Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton now compete in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, respectively, and both have already won a race this season, the first career win for both.

But Busch’s most recent hire may have been his best yet.

Before the 2019 season ended, Busch stated that Chandler Smith was set to return to the team for the 2020 season, but not in a full-time role. Smith, who made the first four starts of his Truck Series career for the team in the 2019 season, is only 17 years old.

He is not set to turn 18 until Friday, June 26, 2020, at which point he will have only been able to compete in three of the 23-race season’s first 12 races due to NASCAR’s restriction on drivers under the age of 18 competing in races at tracks of 1.5 miles in length or longer.

It was confirmed last week that Smith is set to compete in eight races behind the wheel of the #51 Toyota this season. The Talking Rock, Georgia native is set to compete in the regular season races at Richmond Raceway on Saturday, April 18, Dover International Speedway on Friday, May 1 and Michigan International Speedway on Saturday, August 8.

He is also set to compete in the playoff races at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on Friday, August 21, Bristol Motor Speedway on Thursday, September 17, Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Friday, September 25, Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, October 3 and Phoenix Raceway on Friday, November 6.

Smith won’t be eligible for a full-time Truck Series ride until next year. But Busch retaining him for a second straight year in a part-time role may have been the best decision he has made as an owner, as it could set up a potential full-time deal.

Right now, the team’s two full-time drivers are Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard. Through two races, their best finish is a disappointing 20th place, and their average result is an abysmal 23.75.

Neither driver showed a ton of promise with the team leading into 2020, and we all know how much Busch likes watching his drivers perform at this level in top-tier equipment.

Eckes made 12 starts in 2018 and 2019 and recorded an average finish of 11.5 with three top five finishes and seven top 10 finishes. He did take three pole positions, but he never finished higher than third place. Lessard, meanwhile, finished no higher than 11th in three starts for the team in 2019. His average finish was 12.33.

But Smith, despite having no prior Truck Series experience, was competing with the big-name drivers week in and week out. He started from the pole position in his debut at Iowa Speedway due to the #51 team’s owner points and led 55 of the race’s 200 laps en route to an eighth place finish.

At World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, he placed fourth after starting in 25th, and that was not even one of his best two performances. He qualified in seventh at Bristol Motor Speedway and finished in a career-high second before qualifying in a career-high sixth at Phoenix Raceway and finishing in third.

There wasn’t a bigger threat to the field among drivers not competing full-time in the series than Smith, and that doesn’t figure to change this year. With an average finish of 4.25 last season, he trailed only Kyle Busch in the category among the drivers who competed in at least four races.

Busch happens to be the winningest driver in Truck Series history, and he unsurprisingly won five races in his five starts. His win streak is now at seven going back to July of 2018.

Last year, Kyle Busch Motorsports’ two full-time drivers were Burton and Todd Gilliland, and they recorded just five and four top four finishes in the entire 23-race season, respectively. Meanwhile, Smith recorded three in a row with no prior experience. Both of those drivers failed to qualify for the playoffs, and Busch moved on from them.

If Smith can do what he did in 2019 again in 2020, especially if he can outrun Eckes and Lessard, there’s no reason to believe that Busch won’t tab him to drive either the #4 Toyota or the #18 Toyota full-time next year, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue having success as a full-time driver.

There’s also no reason to believe he won’t work his way up the ranks. His success in other series speaks for itself, even though he hasn’t had a full-time ride. In seven CARS Super Late Model Tour starts from 2016 to 2018, his average finish was 5.14 with five top five finishes and six top 10 finishes. Excluding his lone DNF, his average finish was 4.00.

In 21 ARCA Menards Series starts, he has earned eight victories and racked up 15 top five finishes, 20 top 10 finishes and eight pole positions. He has led 1,440 of the 3,693 laps he completed and recorded an average finish of 4.19. Excluding his lone non-top 10 finish, his average finish was 3.60.

Additionally, he has competed in a number of other races, including several for Busch last year. He finished in sixth place in the Winchester 400 at Winchester Speedway, second in the All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville and sixth in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.

It may not be a full-time hire (yet), but Busch retaining Smith for the 2020 season could end up being his best hire as a Truck Series team owner, and that is saying something given the drivers who have driven for him.

Next: Top 10 NASCAR drivers of all-time

What will Chandler Smith accomplish in his second part-time season with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Truck Series? Will he land himself a promotion to full-time driver for the 2021 season?

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