Next Gen Era Tackles Richmond Raceway Next
Mar 31, 2022
Derek Griffith hasn’t even made a single start for Sam Hunt Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, but he is already daydreaming of making it a full-time opportunity.
He immediately likes them that much.
In Hunt and crew chief Allen Hart, Griffith sees kindred spirits who put racing virtually above everything else in their lives. Griffith views Hunt as a similarly minded gritty short track racer with NASCAR ambitions who has reached the highest level through a degree of personal sacrifice.
Hunt famously lived out of a Dodge Caravan parked in a corner of the Roush Yates Engines parking lot with permission from general manager David Lewis after starting his K&N Pro Series team back in 2018. He could either afford a race team or a place to sleep and he chose the former instead.
He later partnered with Peyton Sellers before moving up to the Xfinity Series in 2019. It wasn’t a straightforward, simple path and Griffith has a tremendous amount of respect for how it has grown the past five years.
"It's been really fulfilling to get to know them because we would do the same thing to go race," Griffith told Racing America on Thursday. "They're just great people and I really feel like, no matter what happens this weekend and beyond, that I've made lifelong friends here.
"Their ethic and mentality is just so refreshing. They want this to work and they want to see me in their car."
Griffith didn’t feel that way after his Truck Series debut with Kyle Busch Motorsports at Gateway Motorsports Park. With no disrespect intended, he says it was just a different business model, but it left him questioning his future in NASCAR altogether.
"I didn't feel like I felt in there," Griffith said. "I'm struggling trying to find this absurd amount of money and I thought to myself 'what am I doing' and 'what am I doing here?'
"But I feel like I could run with these guys the rest of my career if we can find the money. Sam told me, and this really stood out to me, that he invests in people. It's just not common to hear that."
Griffith says Toyota 'stepped up quite a bit,' to make this opportunity happen. TRD’s Jack Irving and ARCA Racing Series team owner Chad Bryant pointed him to Hunt. He says the consensus was that ‘we are two pieces of a similar puzzle, trying to build the same things.’ The number of races is TBD but Hunt pushed for their journey to begin together at Richmond so he would be better equipped for Martinsville next week. It certainly helps that Griffith has Super Late Model experience at Richmond too.
"The more I've thought about it, the more I get excited for this weekend because it's basically a big Super Late Model race based on everyone I talk to," Griffith said. "It's about saving your tires, executing on restarts and just getting to the end of races. There’s no drafting. That's what we do every week."
Fellow Late Model graduates turned Xfinity Series winners Josh Berry and Daniel Hemric have expressed that point to Griffith, as has John Hunter Nemechek, who piloted the SHR No. 26 at Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Hart previously worked with Justin Allgaier at JR Motorsports and connected his new driver with his previous one.
"Everyone has been really helpful," Griffith said. "I’m used to racing being very cutthroat, and it can be, but this has just been a very rewarding experience. Daniel gave me his number and said I could reach out if I had any questions, John Hunter and Justin too.
"So many people have been willing to lend a hand."
This will be his first time in the Xfinity Series car, but Toyota has been given Griffith important simulator time. The No. 26 team is consistently a top-15 car, but Nemechek has shown it to be capable of contending for wins, too.
All told, Griffith has modest expectations with ambitious hopes.
"A top 15 would feel like a win," Griffith said. "But deep down, knowing John Hunter finished third with these guys, I’m very competitive and I would love a top-10, or a top-5. But the expectation is top-15 with a clean car.
"Everyone has been so helpful, and I want to earn respect showing them they can race with me, and I just want to prove that I belong here."
It’s the Sam Hunt Racing way.