Chandler Smith will race on a full-time basis in a NASCAR-sanctioned series for the first time. On Monday, Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Smith will drive the #18 Toyota Tundra for the 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season.
“I’ve learned a lot from Kyle the last few years, and I’m thankful to be in a position where I can continue to learn from him,” said Smith. “KBM is a top-notch organization, and I know that with the hard work from everyone in the shop combined with the support from Toyota and TRD that every time we go to the race track we’ll have a chance to compete for wins as long as I do my part.”
Climbing the NASCAR ladder with Toyota Racing Development, Smith quickly made an impression when he started on the pole in his first four career starts in the ARCA Menards Series as a 16-year-old before winning in the fourth at Madison. Over the next three years with Venturini Motorsports, his ARCA schedule increased (though he did not run the full seasons) as he won a combined nine races, including twice in 2020 at Phoenix and Lucas Oil Raceway.
The Georgia native made his Truck Series début with KBM in 2019 at Iowa, where he again started on the pole in his maiden race after qualifying was rained out. He scored top-ten finishes in all three of his 2019 Truck starts, including a runner-up finish at Bristol.
Smith’s Truck slate was increased to twelve races in 2020. After a slow start in which he failed to record a top ten in his first six races, he enjoyed top fives in five of his last six. His best finish on the year was third in the finale at Phoenix, the highest-placing non-championship driver.
“Chandler is following the path that other Toyota Development drivers have in past seasons where they gain valuable experience driving a limited schedule for a couple of seasons and then graduate to running full time for a championship once they are eligible to do so,” Busch added. “He showed that he could run up front on the short tracks right out of the gate in his first season and at the end of this year once he started to understand the aerodynamics of racing on the bigger tracks in the Truck Series, he proved capable of producing top fives no matter where we were racing. Next season, we expect him to continue his progression and be able to turn some of those second and third-place finishes into wins and put himself into the mix for the championship.”
With the news, KBM will field a brand-new full-time driver lineup for the third consecutive year as Smith is partnered with John Hunter Nemechek. The team’s 2020 drivers Christian Eckes and Raphaël Lessard, who in turn replaced 2019 full timers Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, will have to find new homes. While Lessard has landed at GMS Racing on a part-time schedule, Eckes has not revealed his plans. Busch will continue to be among multiple drivers in the team’s third #51 truck.
Eckes, the 2019 ARCA champion, made the playoffs and finished eighth in the standings during his Truck Series rookie year. He recorded eleven top tens and seven top fives with a best finish of second on three occasions (Texas, Kansas 2, and Michigan).
“First of all, I’d like to thank everybody from Kyle Busch Motorsports for the last 3 years of opportunities,” began a statement from Eckes. “It has been a dream come true to race for Kyle and Samantha and I’ll be endlessly thankful for the chance they took on me. All of the crew chiefs, engineers, crew members, pit crews, fab guys and front office people that I’ve had the pleasure of working and alongside — thank you for your hard work and tireless dedication to make KBM great. […]
“I wish we could have ended our journey stronger, but unfortunately 2020 was a challenging year for all parties. These challenges forged relationships + memories that I will never forget and made me a better racer/ person in the process. However, I will not be returning to KBM in 2021. There are no hard feelings and my respect for the organization with never falter.
“I’m ready to open up the next chapter and excited to see what the future holds.”