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Sam Hunt's journey to team owner natural progression in NASCAR

Sam Hunt grew up a racer but he has since made the move to team owner in NASCAR's Xfinity Series. This was a significant change but it was a natural progression in the world of stock car racing.

"I recognized pretty early on that my chances at a driving career were slim to none," Hunt said in a recent sitdown session with media members. "... And I wanted to stay in the sport."

Hunt, who had raced both in Europe and the United States, had opportunities available to him in the world of finance after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University. This would have provided a steady career.

What it wouldn't have done was keep him close to the sport he loved.

"I'm a competitor and this gives me a way to lead people, which I love," Hunt said. "I love people and I'm a people person. That's really why I enjoy my job is I get to work with some really, really cool people.

"But it keeps me in the sport and I'm not ready to leave racing. I'm not ready to leave sport, in general. I think it's just in my blood."

Hunt fielded his first Xfinity entry in 2019 with Colin Garrett behind the wheel for one race. The team returned in 2020 for another nine races split between three drivers.

Business began picking up in 2021 as Sam Hunt Racing competed in all 33 races with a variety of drivers. John Hunter Nemechek delivered the team's best finish at Richmond when he crossed the line third. Sam Hunt Racing also fielded a second entry for the first time.

The 2022 season featured the same arrangement. Sam Hunt Racing fielded one full-time entry with multiple drivers securing top-10 finishes.

The team fielded two full-time entries for the first time in 2023, one with Kaz Grala and the other with a rotating lineup of guests.

Sam Hunt Racing has since dialed back to one entry with multiple drivers.

"I think we learned a lot with two cars and we had our moments," Hunt said about last season. "I thought Kaz did a good job. Connor (Mosack) obviously, was very green and he learned a lot in a short amount of time.

"But this year, I think our goal with one is to focus on becoming a very good single-car team and creating a core group. And our shop will remain the core as we grow."

Photo credit: Sam Hunt Racing

Hunt is not alone in his role as a driver-turned-team owner. The Xfinity field actually features multiple teams with drivers leading the way.

Big Machine Racing is a newer addition to the field. Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta founded the team. He is also a veteran racer with starts across a variety of series.

Tommy Joe Martins, who once drove for Martins Motorsports, joined forces with Caesar Bacarella and relaunched the team as Alpha Prime Racing. Now, Martins' team fields two full-time entries with Ryan Ellis and Brennan Poole as the drivers. There is also a third, part-time entry.

Jordan Anderson is another example. He secured multiple top-five finishes in the Truck Series while driving for his team and fighting to make ends meet. He used to tow race vehicles to the track on a gooseneck trailer and then buy scuffed tires.

After years of effort, Anderson now has actual haulers and a large shop up in Statesville, North Carolina. His team fields two full-time entries in the Xfinity Series with Jeb Burton and Parker Retzlaff as the drivers.

Anderson has celebrated a win at Talladega with Burton. Anderson also fields a third, part-time entry, one that he has driven in three races this season.

"I think there's a natural progression (into ownership) there for guys that aren't in the seat or aren't in the seat full time," Hunt said.

Ownership is nothing new for former and active racers. In the Cup Series alone, Roger Penske and Richard Childress have both won championships after stepping away from the race car. Dale Earnhardt Sr. owned a team that won races across all three national NASCAR series.

Tony Stewart followed in the footsteps of these owners as he joined Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart won a championship as a driver-owner and then he celebrated championships with Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer.

Stewart also announced this week that SHR will close at the end of the 2024 season.

Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are the latest drivers to make this move.

Keselowski left Team Penske after the 2021 season to become a driver-owner at RFK Racing. He has won one race for his team while Chris Buescher has won three. This is Keselowski's second stint as a team owner after previously running Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series.

Hamlin, who still drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, partnered with Michael Jordan ahead of the season to create 23XI Racing. His drivers --Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, and Kurt Busch -- have combined to win six races in just over three seasons.

Of course, the Xfinity Series has one of NASCAR's most popular drivers now running a team. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won two championships in the series, began fielding cars in the second-tier series in 2005. The organization began with one car but has since expanded to four full-time entries while celebrating championships with Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron.

Dale Jr. retired from NASCAR's Cup Series after the 2017 season but he continues to make sporadic starts in Xfinity. Last season, Dale Jr. was in contention for the win at Bristol before a fire ended his race. He then finished fifth at Homestead.

While Dale Jr. and Anderson both continue to occasionally compete in Xfinity, Hunt does not know if he will ever do so again. He doesn't even know if he is currently approved to compete in the series.

"People always joke like, 'Am I ever gonna race again or drive a race car again,'" Hunt said. "Cory (Heim) actually likes to joke that if he gets our first win, I have to start an extra car at another Xfinity race.

"But I've just been all in on this and the ownership and the business, and I think having a racing background definitely helps."