AVONDALE, Ariz. — A whirlwind affair Saturday at Phoenix Raceway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series saw an array of drivers racing ahead vying for victory.
When the checkered flag flew, it was Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Sammy Smith and Ryan Truex who took the top two results respectively. Smith, 18, became the youngest Xfinity Series winner at the Arizona 1-mile track, but Truex’s second-place finish marked a pivotal moment for the 30-year-old journeyman, as Saturday was one of the six starts he’ll make in the No. 19 Toyota Supra during the 2023 season.
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“Training went very well. I thought we were probably the best car here,” Truex said after the race. “Really good in the long run. Missed a bit on the extinguished fire. He [Smith] was the class of the domain today for sure. Man, I don’t know if I misread the track or what, but halfway through the race I was pretty terrible and felt pretty bad about it. We were running like 15th. I just couldn’t get out of my own way.
“But [crew chief] Jason Ratcliff made some really good tweaks on it. Gave me what I needed in the end and luckily got a good reboot. I struggled to restart a bit all day and kept working on it and kept working on it and finally made it there.
This season Ratcliff is calling the shots at the top of the box for a rotation of drivers who will drive the No.19 and was paired with Truex for five races last season.
He said he was confident Truex could do the job when he had a fast car.
“Going out and having such a performance builds confidence and hopefully builds momentum for the next five or six years. [races],” Ratcliff told NASCAR.com. “It was a good lead for us, for our group, for our organization. I wish I had a few more laps at the end, I think he could have done that.
“It’s difficult behind the wheel, especially when you only do a few races a year. You want to go out and do well obviously, but to have a setback in the middle of the race and get over that and not lose hope and keep fighting at the end and have a good performance means a lot I think for a driver. I think it shows the kind of strength he has behind the wheel.
Sixty-nine of the 200 laps were held under the yellow flag, hampering the drivers’ ability to find a rhythm. The pit stops shook up the peloton and created hectic restarts which at times saw the drivers go into fours and mingle with the peloton.
Truex said he found it tough throughout the day but got better as the laps progressed.
WATCH: See the final laps in Phoenix
“My car changed so much during the race,” said Truex. “I was pretty happy at first then the way the stages worked they mixed it all up and I kept struggling on the restarts to improve my position on the track and after the stage warning I would be just back in traffic. For some reason the tire set where we ran 80 laps or whatever, I was just terrible. No rear grip. Front tires slamming.
“On this final set-up Jason made the right choices and gave me a good set of tyres. The rest was up to me. Being aggressive on restarts and basically being the four [tires] on the apron of [Turns] 3 and 4 on every lap was what got me into second place and I did everything I could to catch Sammy but his car was just a little too good there.
With a tight schedule last year, Truex hasn’t competed in a NASCAR National Series event since Atlanta Motor Speedway last July where he finished third in the same car. His second-place finish at Phoenix is his best effort since a second-place finish at the same track in 2019.
Although he doesn’t compete regularly, the New Jersey native added that Saturday was validation for himself that he can go out and compete for wins in the Xfinity Series.
“Man, second again. It sucks, but at least I’m here.