Three years ago, Sam Hunt was living in a van outside of Robert Yates Racing’s old engine shop. Now, his Sam Hunt Racing team is aiming to be a relevant force in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Hunt, 28, made an attempt to become a driver himself. In 34 career K&N Pro Series East races over a seven-year span, he had a best result of sixth at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
But after earning a degree in finance at Virginia Commonwealth University, Hunt approached the late J.D. Gibbs about forming a race team. That is the start of what became Sam Hunt Racing.
“My ownership story is unique because it’s been such a brick-by-brick process,” Hunt told Jayski.com. “It didn’t start with an influx of cash and really has never been an influx of cash. It was like, ‘OK, I’ve got two cars and a driver. I moved to North Carolina and lived in my van on the side of the race shop that Yates was kind enough to offer me space in for free.
“From there, it was step by step. We run a race, if we do well we come home and we buy a couple of springs. The next race, if we do well, we come back and buy this or that. I think it’s building a strong foundation that some teams might not have.”
Come the 2019 Xfinity Series season finale, Hunt found himself fielding an Xfinity car for the first time, with Colin Garrett at the helm. The team showed promise, finishing a respectable 21st after qualifying 15th.
And when the 2020 season came, the COVID-19 pandemic stormed the world, shutting down NASCAR for over two months. Prior to the stoppage, Hunt discussed his plans with Toyota Racing Development, hoping to run in the ballpark of 12 to 15 races.
The team made it to nine events, placing a season-best 12th at the inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with road course ace Brandon Gdovic.
“It was just an unlucky time to dive into it,” Hunt said of trying to kickstart his program. “We were already talking to Toyota about the plan, and it was to run part time. We stuck to our plan of leasing motors, working with [Joe Gibbs Racing] and doing things the way I wanted to do them.”
Financially, though, it was tough to survive, as Hunt stated no matter where he finished, the payout was only $4,500 by not being in the top 36 in owner points.
Hunt added, “When you’re spending $90,000 to go race, you can do the math that it’s not in our favor.”
But Hunt learned a lot of valuable lessons during the 2020 season. He was able to process keeping everything “razor thin,” while seeing a potential light at the end of the tunnel. Last year, the team had just two full-time employees.
Entering the 2021 season, Hunt came in guns blazing. SHR is up to nine or 10 employees, and oftentimes, the team will have to kick Hunt out of the race shop so he doesn’t touch the racecars. That’s a difficult task for Hunt, as he’s someone that’s worked on his own equipment for much of his racing career.
Prior to the start of the season, SHR announced Brandon Gdovic, Kris Wright and IndyCar standout Santino Ferrucci would make up the majority of the schedule in the No. 26 Toyota. Since then, John Hunter Nemechek and Will Rodgers have joined the team, plus Grant Enfinger replaced Gdovic at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“[Hunt] had some races open and it allowed us to take a couple of races that I wanted to run and try to help Sam and his program grow,” Nemechek said. “Try and evaluate where his equipment is at and the potential that it has.”
Despite finishing a disappointing 32nd in his lone start at Dover International Speedway, the five-time Camping World Truck Series winner this season had driven inside the top 10 after starting 30th.
Then, there’s Ferrucci. Not many knew what to expect of the 23-year-old in his NASCAR debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unfortunately, he finished 30th. But following that run, he had four straight top-15 results.
Admittedly, Ferrucci still doesn’t know what he’s doing, six starts into his NASCAR career. However, he believes the No. 26 team has everything it needs to be successful.
“Sam’s team is really well put together, especially with someone so new as a team owner and for a team as small as they are,” Ferrucci said. “I’ve been on a lot of race teams, and they’re way more organized than a couple of the teams I’ve raced for in my career, which is saying a lot considering it’s a couple of guys that have been turning these cars around in their shop.”
Ferrucci credits crew chief Andrew Abbott — previously worked for Jeremy Clements Racing — for a lot of the team’s success. Plus, having a team owner similar in age and fresh out of the driver seat allows for him to mesh with his boss.
“It’s nice because we can go out to the bar and have drinks together and not feel awkward about it,” he said. “Honestly, I would love to go out to the bar and have drinks with Bobby Rahal (Ferrucci’s IndyCar team owner), but Bobby is also in his [60s]. It would be a little bit of a different dynamic going on.”
With just over half of the season complete, Gdovic has competed in five races for SHR, already matching the most he’s ever done in a single year (2016). In the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, he earned the team its first career top-10 finish, placing eighth.
“I was wishing we had five more laps, so I would have actually gotten to race some,” Gdovic said of Daytona. “Just with the way the points situation was for Sam with that race, the plan was just to cruise in the back the whole time because we couldn’t risk getting involved in a crash because of the points situation.”
This past weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Gdovic finished 16th, which marks his best career finish on a non-superspeedway or road course.
Brought one fast @snapmobile.shop hot rod to the Magic Mile this weekend! @brandongdovic started 32nd and drove through the field to finish 16th in the #AmbetterGetVax200.#TeamToyota | #SnapMobile pic.twitter.com/elkozaJ3tW
— Sam Hunt Racing (@Team_SHR26) July 18, 2021
Gdovic is happy with the team’s improvements from last year, though running just two road course races in 2020.
“There’s been good progress with Sam and his team, just going from doing a few races to doing a full-time season this year,” Gdovic added. “They’ve made a lot of progress and definitely had some good finishes. They’ve shown a lot of speed.”
On the performance side, the No. 26 team has had a few credible runs. Outside of a five-race streak of finishing outside the top 30 that started at Darlington Raceway and concluded at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the team has 10 top-20 finishes in 19 races.
Not too shabby for a first year, full-time team.
“It’s extremely promising,” Hunt said of his team’s season. “I think there’s a ton of promise here.”
Nemechek, who has been friends with Hunt for a few years, is impressed with what his friend has put together.
“Their cars have speed and they’re put together well,” Nemechek stated. “Sam is the type of guy that wants to make sure his equipment looks nice; he goes for that. They put a lot of effort into their equipment every single week.”
Gdovic noted with his lack of experience in NASCAR, he’s aiming for top-15 results. But with the speed the car has, placing inside the top 10 regularly isn’t far-fetched.
Currently, the No. 26 team sits 21st in the owner standings, just 22 points below Martins Motorsports’ No. 44 entry.
And that’s with primarily all inexperienced drivers.
— Sam Hunt (@SamHunt22) June 28, 2021
“We’re on an island in the TRD camp where we can bring competitive equipment that we dress and can brand as nice as anybody, but I think it’s a place where guys can get experience,” Hunt said. “What a lot of drivers don’t realize is when you decide to make that jump and get in the [No.] 54 or a [JR Motorsports] car, the expectation is to go out and win the race or at least run top five.”
But SHR is getting quite an amount of support from TRD. Hunt said the company has taken him in as one of their own, despite adding, “I’m not sure why they look after me so much, but they obviously see something. For them to sign a smaller team like mine to be one of their teams is almost out of the ordinary.”
People not in the know might think Hunt just appeared on the surface from out of nowhere to be competitive.
He assures you that’s not the case. And it feels longer than most would think.
“From the outside, everyone sees it as this has taken off so fast, but on the inside when you work 20-hour days every single day, 365, it doesn’t feel that fast,” he said. “I’m not surprised because I’ve got really good people around me.
“If anyone asks me, ‘How do you find success at a younger age?’ It’s not me, I won’t take credit for all of it. It’s the people I hire, mentors and people high up in the sport that have taken to me and believe in me as a person and what I’m trying to do as a person. That’s half of it right there.”