NASCAR Cup Series
By Zack Albert
3 Minute Read
Zane Smith has opened the 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck campaign in the same spot he finished last season – at the top.
There’s been no let-up so far for the reigning series champion, who enters an off weekend for the Truck Series as its points leader with finishes of first and second to start the year. Smith won’t be idle this weekend; the 23-year-old California native is entered in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway, where he will mark his second Cup Series start of the season and just the third of his career.
RELATED: Truck Series standings | Phoenix 101 preview
His kick-off to his Truck Series title defense has started in almost the best possible fashion. Smith prevailed in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, then drove his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford to a runner-up result at Las Vegas Motor Speedway behind a dominant Kyle Busch, the series’ all-time wins leader, adding a stage win along the way.
“No doubt it’s a long year, but I mean, there’s 21 races left,” Smith said after last weekend’s event at Vegas. “These will go by quick, and the playoffs will be here before you know it. So you try to capitalize on these stage wins and good race finishes, and I felt like that’s what we did tonight. That was our goal last year, and it worked out pretty well for us.”
The Craftsman Truck Series returns to action Saturday, March 18, at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the FR8 Auctions 208 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Smith holds a slim two-point edge over ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski, who joined him in the Championship 4 field for last year’s truck title race.
Smith will get to sit on that advantage for an extra weekend before the Truck Series resumes its 2023 schedule. But there’s been little resting on laurels so far, and Chris Lawson – his crew chief for the No. 38 F-150 team – says his driver’s intensity still burns.
“He’s super-focused,” Lawson told NASCAR.com last weekend in the Las Vegas garage. “I saw it last year, toward the end of the year, where he really honed in on that championship, and he literally came into the beginning of this year the same way, like we’re gonna try to come in and win every race, right? Like, we expect to win every race, so he’s got that mentality. He’s got that confidence. I know it ate him tonight to get beat by Kyle. He really wanted that one, but we had speed, we just got a little caught up there, lost our track position. But yeah, it’s there for sure.”
Smith’s Cup Series effort this weekend will be his first in Front Row’s No. 38 Ford Mustang, where he will step in for Todd Gilliland, a second-year driver who will campaign the car in 30 of the 36 races this season. In addition to his Phoenix duties, Smith plans to drive the No. 38 at Talladega Superspeedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway and the Charlotte Roval.
MORE: Phoenix weekend schedule
Smith’s previous two Cup Series efforts came 7 1/2 months apart, and both resulted in respectable top-20 finishes. He filled in for an ailing Chris Buescher last season for RFK Racing, placing 17th at Pocono Raceway, then came home 13th in a third FRM car in this year’s Daytona 500.
Gilliland will be racing at Phoenix for Rick Ware Racing, giving Front Row veteran Michael McDowell a new teammate at the 1-mile Arizona oval. Even though Smith’s sample size at the Cup Series level may be relatively small, McDowell says he still plans to lean on his input as the team prepares for the fourth points-paying race of the year.
“I think Zane is more than qualified and has done a good job in any situation that he’s been in so far, so I think he’s still gonna have a value to the team and to the feedback,” McDowell said. “Race car drivers are race car drivers. For sure, experience helps that when it’s leading an overall direction of development, but as far as balance and feel, and what he’s fighting and what his car is doing, I think it will be valuable.”