Photo by Brenden Martin | Elevated Media
PHOENIX — The multiple roads to the Championship 4 for Zane Smith have never had a clear path afterward … that is until this season.
The back-to-back NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship runner-up has had to fight and claw his way to maintain his spot in the sport. Each time he advanced to the Championship 4, Smith did not have any plans set up for the subsequent season.
Last season, Smith clinched his spot in the Championship 4 with a win at Martinsville Speedway, the final race of the Round of 8. He looked to finally have some momentum going his way heading into Phoenix Raceway. However, his mind was focused on what was ahead as opposed to celebrating his third career truck win.
“All these team owners, all they care about is if you win or not,” Smith said at Championship 4 Media Day last year. “That’s how I look at it. If I want to make it in this sport, I don’t have a money background and so I’m going to have to outperform them by double if I really want to make it in this sport.”
Martinsville winner @zanesmith77 won his way into the #Championship4 , but his future in NASCAR is still uncertain.
Hear how he feels that he can’t rest easy even after his first victory of the season.#NASCARPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/YtlXCkBiX1
— Brenden Martin (@BrendenMartin_) November 5, 2021
Smith was the dominant car in the truck finale last year only to be passed by eventual champion Ben Rhodes of ThorSport Racing with eight laps to go.
RETWEET to congratulate @benrhodes on winning his first @NASCAR_Trucks Series CHAMPIONSHIP!
Here’s the winning move on Zane Smith. pic.twitter.com/8Ur8Jav8yJ
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 6, 2021
Smith was almost a preview of what Daniel Hemric went on to do in the Xfinity Series Championship a day after, where he took the title as an outgoing driver from their team. Only then, Hemric knew he was moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Kaulig Racing. Smith had zero clue where he would go.
Despite the disappointing ending, Smith found a new home with a new manufacturer in 2022, signing a deal with Front Row Motorsports.
In contrast to the late-season run Smith went on last year with GMS, he wasted no time with FRM to ensure he was a driver teams wanted to have. Smith won the opening race of the season, the NextEra Energy 250, at Daytona International Speedway. He followed that up with wins at Circuit of the Americas and Kansas all before June.
Retweet to congratulate Zane Smith on his Truck Series win at Daytona! pic.twitter.com/w4SbOBHAzJ
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 19, 2022
RETWEET TO CONGRATULATE ZANE SMITH ON HIS NASCAR TRUCK SERIES WIN AT COTA.@zanesmith77 | @Team_FRM pic.twitter.com/eyJVrN9khh
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 26, 2022
Smith quickly became one of the most high-profile Ford drivers outside the Cup Series, which was evident when Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing tapped him to drive the No. 17 Ford Mustang in place of Chris Buescher, who was under COVID-19 protocol. Making his Cup debut on the same track he finished fifth in his truck debut with DGR-Crosley in 2018, Smith finished a respectable 17th place after taking the wheel on short notice.
Team co-owner Brad Keselowski sang the praises of the young driver after he called him asking if he could fill in.
Clearly #1 available driver prospect IMHO@zanesmith77 has won 3 races this year alone in trucks where he’s also top ranked In most categories.
Outside of @FordPerformance relationship, he’s also running the truck race the night before.
Doesn’t hurt he’s earned his success… https://t.co/elB6mef1a9
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) June 3, 2022
Smith had a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when Front Row Motorsports re-signed him for 2023 with the added opportunity to compete in his first career Daytona 500, allowing him to run the rest of the season more freely.
Coming into Phoenix with a chance to win a championship for a third-straight year, Smith struck a different tone and said not having to worry about the offseason has made him a better driver.
“I feel like I’ve raced differently this year and I think if I was able to get a championship, I’ll even race smarter than I am now,” Smith said.
“I think @JeffBurton typically talks about it a good bit of when a driver knows what they could be doing next year, they just race smarter.”@Team_FRM No. 38 driver @zanesmith77 on the relief to finally go into the @NASCAR_Trucks #Championship4 with a ride lined up in 2023. pic.twitter.com/jHRKOXIlZT
— Brenden Martin (@BrendenMartin_) November 3, 2022
Smith has largely fallen under the radar since his dominating win at Kansas in mid-May, the last time he has seen Victory Lane, but the 2022 Truck Series Regular Season Champion piled up enough playoff points to secure his perennial spot in the Championship 4.
Much like in previous years, Smith could be falling under the radar heading into the Phoenix finale. He will look to make the third time the charm in his hunt to finally come away a NASCAR champion. He was the second-fastest driver in practice Friday night, behind fellow Championship 4 competitor Ty Majeski of ThorSport Racing.
The Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway will crown a champion on Friday, Nov. 4. The race will begin under the light, starting at 7 p.m. MST.