AVONDALE, Ariz. – Zane Smith’s path to a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship seemed so close yet far away for the past two seasons.
Certainly, the Huntington Beach, California native could muster wins and hold his own against his tenacious competitors. However, the season finale at Phoenix Raceway would end in frustrating fashion.
This year, Smith’s situation changed as he moved from GMS Racing to Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Ford F-150 team. Moreover, he found himself around a team that focused its efforts around him for victories and the elusive title.
The energetic young racer tallied wins at Daytona, Circuit of the Americas and Kansas, netting 23 Playoff points and his third consecutive postseason appearance.
Outside of a 17th at Talladega. Smith placed ninth or better in five of the six previous Playoff races. By all means, consistency proved vital for the 23-year-old, fourth year Truck racer.
Ahead of Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix, Smith earned his first career Truck pole.
While it was evident that Smith had a fast No. 38 truck, it was about positioning himself in the best spot to capture his first championship. After winning Stages 1 and 2, Smith had to overcome a slow pit stop in Stage 3 that dropped him from the lead to fourth position.
On this occasion, Smith would not be denied, even when he had some hurdles to leap over. He regained the lead on Lap 112.
Suddenly, it seemed like it would smooth sailing to a Friday night celebration. On Lap 134, those thoughts were paused when Hailie Deegan hit the Turn 3 wall which prompted the race’s penultimate caution period.
Smith led the lead lap contenders to pit road for the final stops of the season. In this case, he would drop outside of the top 10 while his title rivals, Ben Rhodes, due in part to a two tire stop, and Chandler Smith, the first off pit road with four tires, gained optimum track position.
Restarting 11th, Zane Smith dropped the hammer on Lap 141. Easily making his way into second place by Lap 147, Ty Majeski, a Championship 4 contender, spun off Turn 2, making contact with the backstretch pit road wall, prompting the final yellow of the 2022 Truck season.
With the race resuming in a NASCAR Overtime restart on Lap 153, Zane Smith regained the lead, holding onto the number one spot for good.
Unlike 2020 and 2021, Smith was a victor. Indeed, he crossed the stripe by 0.236 seconds over Rhodes, the reigning Truck champion.
Like those victories at Michigan in 2020, Martinsville last year along with Daytona and COTA earlier this season, Smith pulled a rabbit out of the hat at Phoenix.
“Oh, my God, third time’s a charm. I want this shit more than anyone in the world,” Smith said. “I don’t care what anyone says. Thank you to all you race fans, my whole team. Oh, my God, I was crying that whole lap.”
Before he could enjoy those tears of happiness, he rallied around his team despite the tough track position ahead of the Lap 141 restart.
“I wasn’t gonna let it go down like that,” he recalled. “I knew when I came out 11th, I’ve been in way uglier times before and I was either wrecked or I was coming home with the championship trophy and we got the big one.”
For the first time since Greg Biffle’s 2000 championship season, Smith delivered a Truck title for Ford Performance.
Beyond personal merits, Smith was motivated to deliver for the Blue Ovals in a series typically dominated by the Toyota camp.
“It’s pretty special,” he said. “Ford doesn’t have very many trucks out there. I knew it was me versus Toyota.
“It made me want to get them a championship that much more. It was difficult when I was boxed in by KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) for pretty much the first half.”
Needless to say, Smith was thrilled when NASCAR moved the season finale for the big three series to “The Valley of the Sun” starting in 2020, particularly with his support system being able to make the trek.
“When I found out that Phoenix was going to be the new Homestead, I was pretty excited about that,” he stated. “This is as close as home that I get. It’s so cool having family, friends, old sponsors that are like family, just all of them here.”
A Truck championship can do wonders for a young sensation like Smith as he vies for an opportunity to compete in Cup.
For now, Smith can smile and realize that he has checked off a huge bucket list goal that he has pursued since his childhood.
“Since I was a little kid, this was what our goal was. We just never gave up and they probably believed in me more than I believed in myself most of the time,” Smith shared.
Stage 1 Top 10 Finishers
Z. Smith-Heim-Friesen-Nemechek-Crafton/Rhodes-Enfinger-C. Smith-Eckes-Riggs
Stage 2 Top 10 Finishers
Z. Smith-Nemechek-C. Smith-Heim-Majeski/Crafton-Enfinger-Friesen-Tay. Gray-Rhodes
Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway Top 10 Finishers
Z. Smith-Rhodes-C. Smith-Nemechek-Friesen/Enfinger-Heim-Tan. Gray-Honeycutt-Hocevar
Luis Torres contributed to this article directly on-site from Phoenix Raceway.