The contrast is striking, if somewhat predictable.
Sam Mayer joined the NASCAR Xfinity Series last season as soon as he turned 18 and became eligible. The Franklin native – who had won in the Camping World Truck Series and dominated in ARCA – was bound to show improvement.
The only question was when.
“Last year was certainly a reality check,” said Taylor Moyer, Mayer’s JR Motorsports crew chief. “I think of the talent in this series first and foremost and entering in the middle of a year when everybody else has got 15 races under their belt has got to be really tough.
“We already knew it, but we immediately saw that Sam had speed, natural speed. He has all the physical ability in the world. The trouble we were getting in was the lack of race craft and experienced knowledge, not racing that quality of a field for that long of a race.”
In 18 starts, Mayer finished in the top five once and crashed out of five races, including Road America, where he took a hard hit in a chain-reaction crash under braking. He won’t lie. He was disappointed and frustrated and dedicated himself to making his first full year everything his partial 2021 season wasn’t.
Through 15 races and heading to the Henry 180 on Saturday at Road America, his home track, Mayer has eight top-five finishes and has one pole position start. While a win hasn’t come for the No. 1 Chevrolet crew, it seems a lot more likely it will soon.
“Unfortunately in racing – and this really kind of goes for anything in life – when you’re so young, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Mayer said. “You can’t just know something and how it’s going to go if you don’t experience it. You have to figure it out one way or another.
“The way I had to figure it out is I unfortunately was getting thrown in with the wolves and fighting them off and trying to learn to drive these race cars while fighting a bunch of wolves. It was definitely super challenging … and I had to learn really quickly, but it definitely is going to help me later on in my career for sure.”
In the short term, though, the experience was both humbling and demoralizing.
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“I put myself in a mindset last year where I wasn’t in a good place mentally because I obviously was making mistakes and I was struggling compared to what I thought I was going to,” Mayer said. “At the same time, it’s helping me for this year and it’s making me way better this year.”
From the team’s standpoint, Moyer made it clear that everyone had Mayer’s back, that the blame game wasn’t going to make anyone any better.
He recalled a meeting they had at the end of the season that became a turning point for the young driver
“He said, I’m going to go home, I’m going to recharge and I’m going to come back and hit this thing hard,” Moyer said. “He went home and when he came back after New Year’s, the focus I’ve seen, the determination I’ve seen, the drive has definitely been there.
“7 o’clock he’s working out with (driver-turned-trainer) Josh Wise, then he’s in the simulator with us some days or in team meetings or he’s doing other types of training with Josh. It’s very structured. … The system works for him.”
That approach is just one sign of maturation.
Another shows on the racetrack.
“Then the biggest thing I’ve been seeing is stuff we’ve talked about last year, race situational-type stuff where we might have got in trouble,” Moyer said. “It’s just knowing when to put himself in situations and knowing when it’s not worth it, when the risk outweighs the reward.”
With just one year and one race together, Mayer and the team are making progress quickly enough that it’s easy to see. Seven of his top-fives have come in the past nine races, as has his pole.
“The speed has been there since the drop of the green this year and we just needed to start roping together some momentum,” Moyer said. “It’s funny, the momentum all came from Richmond, where I think we’d all sit around as a group and say we did not bring the car that Sam needed and he immediately understood that, hey, we’re going to go to Plan B, which is outsmart these guys, which is pace ourselves, and we ended up finishing third at Richmond and possibly could have won it if the two knuckleheads at the front (John Hunter Nemechek and Ty Gibbs) would have wrecked each other.
“That was him trusting us to know that we had his best interest at heart when we were going, ‘Go 50%, go 50%.’ As a race car driver that has to be extremely hard. I think it clicked from there that there’s a process. …
“Darlington, Texas, Charlotte, those intermediate races were what we had circled as this is where we’ve got to get better. We ran top five at all of those. So that’s very encouraging. We ran top five and sometimes didn’t feel like we gave him the piece he needed, or he’s evolving now to know more what he needs in the race car, which is a great thing as well. It makes our life easier. I think we’re on the cusp.”
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Mayer’s qualifying has improved, as well. In the past 10 races – from about the time the team put an emphasis on starting better – he has been fifth or better eight times. His average starting position for the season is 11.9, but in the past six races it’s 7.3.
Still there are holes, the most obvious one being experience.
Mayer has been in a total of 75 national level stock car races and 28 of those were in ARCA, which has shorter races and lesser competition than Xfinity and trucks.
“Sam wouldn’t be upset with me saying the next goal we have set is to get better at things like pit stops,” Moyer said. “Because at Charlotte was really his first real green-flag pit stop where it mattered. We were running third at the time. We gave up a lot of time on entry. Two cars got by us. Then there was a little snafu on the pit stop. We gave up, like, five seconds to the guys ahead of us on the green-flag stop, and it went green the rest of the way.”
It’s inevitable in racing that a driver on a successful team will be measured against his teammates. Mayer is sixth in the standings directly behind JR Motorsports drivers Justin Allgaier, Noah Gragson and Josh Berry, each of whom has two victories this season.
Allgaier is in his 13th full season in the Xfinity Series and also has made 80 Cup starts; Gragson is in his fourth year; and Berry has raced for JRM, mostly in late models, since Mayer was 6 years old.
“All these guys have been here for years and years and years, and Josh obviously has been racing for years and years and years,” Mayer said. “I’m having to learn all these things on the fly.
“Yeah, I’m up there, running out front, winning stages, leading laps and finishing in the top five with these teammates of mine pretty much every week. But I’ve just got to find that extra 5-7% to become the next Justin Allgaier, the next Kyle Busch, the next Josh Berry. All these guys have that 5-7% figured out because they’ve been doing it so long.
“That’s what I’ve got to figure out, and that’s when I’ll start beating my teammates.”
If progress continues at the current rate, that shouldn’t be long.