#26: Corey Heim, Sam Hunt Racing, Synergy Modular Toyota Supra
Image from: Daylon Barr Photography.

Sam Hunt Racing continues progressing in fourth full season

By Dustin Albino

It might seem like a lifetime ago, but Sam Hunt became accustomed to scraping by. Just six years ago, he was living in a van outside of Robert Yates Racing’s old engine shop.

Hunt’s life has changed drastically over the last handful of seasons. He had a grand idea late in 2019 to enter an Xfinity Series car into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the team’s first outing, Colin Garrett qualified 15th and finished a respectable 21st.

“This thing should have never worked out on paper,” Hunt recently told Jayski of his vision. “It should have never made it this far.”

The series is at the one-third mark in Hunt’s fourth full-time season as a team owner. He’s had 21 drivers in that timeframe, with experience levels varying across motorsports. Sam Hunt Racing has leaned on veteran leadership with drivers, such as John Hunter Nemechek and Jeffrey Earnhardt, while also giving local drivers their first shot like Derek Griffith. It’s also been a place where open-wheel drivers, such as Santino Ferrucci and Daniil Kvyat, have dipped their toes into the stock-car world.

Overall, it’s a place where racers want to race.

“It’s fun for me to be a part of so many guys’ journeys,” Hunt said. “ It’s been a place where I think guys want experience, but want to compete up front and have a competitive platform that’s not the same pressure as [Joe Gibbs Racing] or something of that caliber.”

Brandon Gdovic earned SHR’s first top-10 finish in the 2021 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Nemechek scored the team’s first top-five finish in an emotional race at Hunt’s home race track, Richmond Raceway, in 2021. You would have thought the No. 26 car was in Victory Lane with how much the team celebrated.

“It’s cool to see [Hunt] care about his racecars and the performance that they have at the race track,” Nemechek said. “There have been good runs; I’ve had quite a few in that car. Who knows, maybe I can get him his first win some day.”

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 11: John H. Nemechek, driver of the #26 Toyota Racing Development Toyota, and Chad Finchum, driver of the #35 Garrison Homes Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Crown Royal Purple Bag Project 200 at Darlington Raceway on May 11, 2024 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Expectations have shifted dramatically over the years. Despite fielding numerous drivers and floating with the idea of running two full-time teams – doing so in 2023 – Kaz Grala has been the team’s lone full-time driver. He boosted his resume with a pair of top-five results last season, with nine total top-10 finishes.

Grala finished 17th in the driver standings, while the No. 26 car placed 19th in the owners standings without having a technical alliance.

“Sam Hunt Racing is one of, if not the best, of the rest behind the Cup organizations in Xfinity,” Grala, who now competes in the Cup Series, said. “They are about the only team doing it that well on their own.

“It has been such a short amount of time and the team got extremely competitive in only a couple of years.”

Some of the success boils down to having a relatable car owner. Hunt, who is a youthful 30 years old, can connect with his drivers on a personal basis. Away from competition, he is friends with many of his drivers and has to balance personal and professional relationships.

Being amidst the new blood in the Xfinity Series, Hunt is earning the respect of opposing team owners to feel valued in the garage.

“It’s interesting because I relate to a lot of the same things [my drivers] relate to,” Hunt said. “Whether it’s things in racing or things in pop culture or music. I think there is a comfort that our drivers have here because they are on the same page as me – a lot.

“I feel like I’m just old enough to give life advice on my early 20s and what I would do differently or how I would handle certain situations in hindsight. It makes it fun and it’s hard because sometimes you start growing with someone and we’re a development series and we’re a development team, so we don’t always get to work with someone forever.”

Grala concurs that Hunt is easy to work with.

“He is the only team owner that I’ve had that I was friends and buddies with away from the race track because typically, they are one, if not two, generations older than I am,” Grala added. “It’s a lot of fun having Sam as an owner and being able to chat with him about his hopes, ideas and dreams for the team because most team owners are not in the same position as a young driver that is trying to build something.”

Corey Heim, one of Toyota’s top prospects and the primary driver of the No. 26 car through the opening 11 races in 2024, has known Hunt for years. The owner thought Heim would be special since watching him compete in late model stocks.

Heim realizes that SHR is filled with quality racers, which has allowed him to jive nicely with the team since competing in his first Xfinity Series race last season.

“You see a lot of Cup teams that have been around forever, they have the same core people,” Heim said. “People want to work for you when you have good people. You can have all the money in the world, but people aren’t going to want to come work for you if you don’t have a good organization and have good people.

“I think Toyota Racing has been crucial for him over the last couple of years in getting their equipment better and the relationship is there where it’s mutual, they both want to get better and be successful.”

The two have also become pals off the track. And gaining experience in the Xfinity Series for SHR is all part of the developing process.

“He just gets it and knows what people need to make a developmental driver successful,” Heim said of Hunt. “I think that’s why you see a lot of developmental drivers wanting to go there because he has the right people. From top to bottom, the team is people that understand where a developmental driver needs to develop.”

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - APRIL 12: Corey Heim, driver of the #26 Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Andy's Frozen Custard 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 12, 2024 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Heim is getting a load of the races this season. The original plan was for Grala to return and remain a two-car operation. Instead, Hunt had to scale back and solely focus on the No. 26 Toyota.

“It was stressful this winter because plans changed late in the game,” Hunt said. “But there is a silver lining being drawn, having Corey’s schedule growing and getting to run with [Earnhardt]. This isn’t something that we’re not used to. I’m happy to see that our performance has been good and we seem to be moving the needle.”

Adapting on the fly is the story of Hunt’s ownership journey. He’s often pulling in the same direction as his drivers as they want to prove themselves with a Toyota-backed team.

After scoring a fourth-place finish at Richmond at the end of March, the No. 26 car ranked 11th in the owners standings. With three finishes of 35th or worse, including multiple mechanical woes, across the last five races, the No. 26 team has dropped to 19th.

“For us to be in position for the owners playoffs is our goal,” he explained. “To get that first win would be a huge item we want to check off the box.”

The team has come close to winning multiple races over the last couple of years, including Sage Karam trading paint for the lead in the final laps at Road America last year. Hunt points to needing to find a better balance on newer track surfaces and pinpointed old configurations as the team’s specialty.

Hunt hasn’t ruled out running a second car in some races this season. IndyCar veteran Ed Jones ran the No. 24 Toyota at COTA. A second car in the arsenal is crucial for the team’s development.

Nonetheless, Hunt wants to continue getting better and moving forward.

“It’s ahead of schedule because we’re doing things that I thought at a certain point was never realistic,” Hunt said. “On the flip side, I’m ultra competitive and raise the bar on myself every year. I think we’re doing a good job and close to being where we want to be. Now that we can smell blood a little bit, everybody is motivated to get there.”