Nick Smith won his first Legends race in a 26-car field at Langley Speedway as a 15-year-old in 2002. He followed by beating track icon Dale Lemonds for the 2003 division title, a feat that had fans in awe of his talent and optimistic for his future.
But even with talent, the chances of making it to the highest reaches of NASCAR are similar to those of winning that $640 million lottery. Now 25, the window for Smith making it to NASCAR's top tier is closing.
"A Nationwide and Sprint Cup winner told me that you couldn't get a sniff before 30 years ago, but nowadays if you don't have a promising Cup or Nationwide ride by the time you're 25 to 27, you'll probably never get one," Auto Week columnist Al Pearce said. "Nick has the ability, but there are three or four of them at every weekly track in America.
"They're basically competing against each other."
Smith understands that, but it doesn't dampen his passion for racing. So, if he has his way, he'll be racing full-time in two divisions at Langely Speedway, which begins its 62nd season on Saturday with six races.
Smith will race on Saturday in the Late Model 100 for Bob Unczur, who owns the Creative Services concrete business in northern Virginia. He'll be in the same Chevy he drove to a second-place finish recently at South Boston in the first leg of the state Triple Crown. Whether or not he runs the full slate of Late Model races depends on finding more sponsorship.
Next Saturday, he'll make his return to full-time Legends racing. Smith, who won the Legends season finale in 2011, will begin his quest for a first Legends title since 2005 — the last time he competed full time in the division.
"That (Legends) win last year brought back a lot of childhood memories," Smith said. "I still have that dream to run higher up in NASCAR, but not making it yet just drives me even more.
"And it drives me just to have fun at what I'm doing now. My focus is still on getting to Victory Lane."
Longtime Langley fans will tell you nobody ever showed more skill at doing that in a Legends car than Smith. He rose through the ranks at a time when 25-car Legends fields were common at Langley and Lemonds was the gold-standard.
"He was like Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator," Smith recalled. "He would bump you out of the way if had to.
"But I learned a lot from him and Woody Howard and Cameron Patrick and Rette Causey. They made me a better driver."
Smith would go on to display that talent throughout the region. When Dodges won the first 15 races at Langley in 2007, Smith broke their streak, and won a $1,300 bounty, with a victory.
In 2008, he won the inaugural Hampton Heat Late Model at Langley and a $15,000 winner's check, adding $5,000 by winning twin Late Models later that season.
A year later, he won a track-high seven Late Model races and seven poles driving at South Boston for car owner Dave Atkinson and crew chief Sammy Houston, who had helped Mark Martin win numerous Late Model races. Smith won seven more Late Model races in 2010 at Southside Speedway driving Houston's personal car.
While focused running the Late Model, Smith ran the occasional Legends race and impressed as always. His victory in a 2007 race at Langley earned him a then-record $2,000.
With no clear path to the big-time looming, Smith is, in a way, back to square one. He'll run for the Legends title in a car owned by brothers Chris and Earle Hall of Bluewater Yacht Sales.
As he does, he'll mentor Connor Hall, Earle's 15-year-old son. Smith hopes to give Connor Hall the benefit of his experience.
"Driving Legends cars again is awesome," said Smith, who won Legends twin races last week at Southside. "I want to help Connor get Rookie of the Year, teach him about what I learn about the cars and help him as a driver.
"The key is for him to stay calm and focus on what he's doing: not worry about everybody else. I think it's going to be an awesome year for me and for him, too."
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Langley Speedway, N. Armistead Ave. and Dale Lemonds Lane, across from the NASA Langley Wind Tunnel.
WHAT: Six stock-car races (Late Model 100, Super Truck twin-20s, UCAR 25, Pro-Six 30, Champ Kart 20).
TICKETS: $10 adults, $8 military and seniors, $5 ages 6-12, $25 family pack (two adults, two children).