BRISTOL, Tenn. — In 2022, Zane Smith surged to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship while Ty Majeski stormed to the Championship 4 on the heels of two wins in the Round of 8.
After the opening stanza to the 2023 Round of 8 on Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, both drivers sit beneath the provisional elimination line, with Smith 14 points back and Majeski out by 22 markers.
Smith led 43 laps in Thursday’s UNOH 200 after a strategy call by crew chief Chris Lawson to not pit after the first stage sent the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford to the front of the field. But when Smith finally hit pit road after Stage 2 at Lap 116, his truck sat over the lines of the pit box while he received service, incurring a penalty that sent him to the rear of the field for the impending restart.
In the end, Smith finished 24th, the lowest of the eight remaining drivers in the NASCAR Playoffs and one lap off the pace.
“They said I was pitted outside my box by just a little bit,” Smith said. “I had to start at tail-end and yeah. I mean just definitely a rough, rough night but I mean, you saw it. Wherever you were gonna restart is where you were gonna run. My truck was terrible in the second stage but I had clean air, so just can’t pass. Just sucks.”
Majeski’s misfortune struck at Lap 106 as Stage 2 wound down. Running fourth, Majeski was forced to the inside lane after Corey Heim sped to his outside to battle for position. The duo quickly approached the lapped truck of Spencer Boyd entering Turn 3 and Majeski tried to run the middle lane to split Boyd and Heim. But that was the lane Heim chose on corner entry, leading to contact between Majeski’s right-front tire and Heim’s left rear.
The contact flattened Majeski’s tire, leading the No. 98 ThorSport Ford to limp around the track for the closing circuits of the stage before the yellow flag was displayed. All things considered, Majeski and his team made the most of the situation — they fell off the lead lap before the end of the stage but remained the first truck one lap down, earning the free pass to get back on the lead lap to begin the final stage. Majeski eventually took the checkered flag in 19th place.
“Yeah, I mean, the situation could have been a lot worse,” Majeski said. “Obviously not ideal. I don’t think we’re quite in the must-win (situation) yet, but it’s close. We need to gain points at Talladega. There’s no doubt about it. So yeah, just got to have a short-term memory. Felt like we got the lucky dog and made our way back up to 19th. Had one of the fastest trucks there at the end of the race.”
Two races remain before the Truck Series’ Championship 4 is set — first at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, Sept. 30 (1 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) followed by Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 21.
Smith has gone to the title round in each of the last three years, earning two runner-up finishes before last year’s championship triumph. Last year, he advanced to the Championship 4 by scoring two runner-up finishes in the Round of 8 in addition to a 17th-place finish at Talladega. Previous experience in managing these rounds would appear to be a significant benefit, but the looming uncertainty of superspeedway racing doesn’t add much comfort to the fourth-year Truck Series competitor.
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve experienced it. So I guess that’s maybe a little bit (of help),” Smith said, “but yeah, it’s still a lot of racing to go do.”
Majeski dominated the Round of 8 a season ago, winning Bristol and Homestead-Miami on the way to his first title-round appearance — besting Smith by one spot in each to do so. A 22-point deficit to Grant Enfinger for the fourth and final spot is significant, but Majeski is confident in his abilities and his team’s, especially after leading exactly half the laps at Homestead in 2022.
“I think we have to maximize the the next six stages, right?” Majeski said. “I don’t think we’re out. You know, it’s not out of the question to point our way in yet. You know, I think we’ll reassess that after Talladega. Obviously we want to go win Talladega. But if we can come out of there with stage points in all three stages and a solid top-five finish, that should put us in a good position to potentially point our way in depending on what happens into Phoenix. So we’ll just see what happens. We have really fast trucks right now. That’s one thing we can we can go back to the shop with (and) are working hard to make our race trucks better and keep our heads down and move on to Talladega.”
Majeski burst into the playoffs with significant momentum, leading 168 laps at Richmond in the regular-season finale before finishing second, then stomping the field at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park with a win after leading 179 of 200 circuits. The No. 98 team cooled in the two races leading into Bristol, however, with a seventh-place finish at the Milwaukee Mile and 18th at Kansas Speedway.
“We had a few off races here, know exactly why, so I feel good about where we’re at as a race team,” Majeski said. “I really do. Obviously a tough one tonight. I felt like we were plenty capable of winning. You know, we were right there with the 19 (Christian Eckes), 42 (Carson Hocevar) or the 11 (Heim) were probably the four best trucks. Didn’t end up that way but I thought we showed some good speed tonight.
“We found some issues with with the truck we had at Kansas. So you’ll have those things, right? It’s just part of racing but proud of my race team. We’re in good shape. We’re in a good spot. Just keep marching forward.”