Zane Smith will get opportunities after NASCAR Truck Series championship
Any aspiring NASCAR Cup Series driver, to be taken seriously, can't just win races in a development series.
The driver needs to win races in high-pressure situations, especially when that driver has arguably the best car.
Zane Smith could check that box when he won the biggest race of his career, the 2022 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
He went from third to first on the final restart and then held off two drivers on his bumper and at his side daring him to make a mistake.
He didn't. The 23-year-old showed the maturity and the skill that make Cup teams notice and will have many owners watching him beyond what he says Thursday night at the NASCAR national series awards ceremony in Nashville.
Few doubt that Smith has a future in the sport. But that has been said about plenty a truck series champion. No truck champion has ever parlayed that success into winning a Cup championship later in his career. Kurt Busch is the only truck Rookie of the Year to win a Cup title.
Drivers who have won truck titles have gone on to Cup and won races, but the championship has eluded them.
Smith, who made his Cup debut last June when Brad Keselowski chose him to substitute for the sick Chris Buescher at Gateway, is on a path that will make people believe he will eventually get the shot to win Cup races and possibly the title.
When he attempts to make the Daytona 500 next February, few will doubt that he doesn't belong among the 40 drivers competing in the sport's marquee event based on his ability on superspeedways as well as the poise he showed in finishing 17th in his Cup debut.
Smith will still be a full-time driver in the truck series in 2023, but Front Row Motorsports owner Bob Jenkins knows from what he saw last year — and especially at Phoenix — that he has a driver whose skills show the potential that he has what it takes to perform on the sport's biggest stage.
"Bob Jenkins was going to get a wrecked chuck or a championship trophy at the end of the day," said Smith who had finished second in the standings in 2020 and 2021. "I was not going to lose another one.
"It's scarred me too bad."
While it is obvious that being in a truck championship is no guarantee of success at NASCAR's higher levels. But Smith has more than just bad memories that have fueled him and likely will continue to fuel him. In trucks, he drove two seasons for GMS Racing in finishing second in the standings. The second year at GMS was a little unexpected as he appeared in line to replace Kyle Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing for the 2021 season.
He ended up staying at GMS and then found himself without a ride as of early November 2021.
"I went from my very first year in trucks to winning a couple races in my rookie season, getting possibly an opportunity at a Cup car, and I thought that was crazy," Smith said.
"Then last year [in 2021], I felt like we were really fast but struggled bad on execution. I felt like everything happened to us that year, and we still were able to advance into the final four."
When he finished second to Ben Rhodes in the championship in 2021, Smith didn't have a ride for 2022. The Front Row deal didn't come together until later in November.
When he won the title in 2022, he already knew he had a deal with Front Row to do a handful of Cup races in 2023 and potentially some Xfinity races in addition to the full truck schedule.
"I have literally stood in [the Phoenix] parking lot three years in a row not knowing what I'm going to be doing next year," Smith said. "I knew going into this, because I've been through way worse times, ... [It's] just crazy where I'm at mentally and how great things are going in my life right now. I'm just trying to ride it as long as I can."
Whether Front Row can keep Smith beyond 2023 is to be determined. But they have a plan to get him to Cup and know he has a comfort factor with the team that is unique. He has clicked with the Front Row truck team and Front Row potentially could use that group as a potential unit to keep working as much together as possible with Smith.
"We obviously saw Zane's talent driving for GMS and winning races and coming so close to winning the championship ... and just thought that when we've gotten more and more serious about the Truck Series, it's to develop whether it's a driver, whether it's a crew chief or engineer or whatever for our Cup programs," Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said.
"And so we looked at Zane as somebody potentially that could drive our Cup car in the future."
Smith's schedule for 2023 as far as Cup has not been set beyond the Daytona 500.
"We should know which races in the next couple of weeks," Smith said earlier this month. "It's going to be five or six races I think, which I think is good. Front Row isn't a huge race shop.
"There's a truck out of it right now. I don't want it to be too much on the truck team or the race team in general, either, so I'm excited for what we're doing and I'm just ready to get back, as crazy as it sounds saying this, but to get back racing on Sunday."
Thinking Out Loud
While in Nashville for the awards this week, there will be plenty of talk of the Bristol proposal for it to renovate and operate the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. There will be at least two public comment hearings over the next five weeks.
It is tempting for people to say that those in the area shouldn't have moved near the speedway if they didn't want to worry about traffic and noise.
But some of those people likely moved there when they thought the track would be closed, as was rumored for several years until the 2011 charter amendment where voters decided for the Nashville Fairgrounds to continue its activities, including racing.
Still, the fact is that it is public land. The city owns the land and the track. If you live there, you should have a voice on how your tax dollars and the land near your home is used. If enough people don't want the racetrack in their community, then it is up to the elected leaders to decide if it is still worth it for the revenue and tourism dollars that potentially could be generated.
While it is easy to make fun of people who might not have all the facts when voicing their displeasure, it shouldn't go without notice that this is the way public boards work. The people on the boards will get to hear from Bristol and other executives who want to dispute what homeowners will say.
A vibrant discussion of the benefits and the impact on the community is a good thing. And those tempted to just dismiss people for being concerned about their quality of life is not something that a sport hoping to be accommodating and open-minded should dismiss outright.
They Said It
"We have got an authentic, historic track since 1905. ... We should have never let it become under-invested in. Here is our path to turn it into a community asset for everybody."
—Nashville Mayor John Cooper on the Bristol-Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway proposal
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Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.