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LONG POND, Pa. — No one in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is having a season quite like Zane Smith.
With three wins in his pocket, the third-year Truck racer leads the series in victories and is the only full-time competitor with multiple triumphs.
Smith, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports entry, holds a 58-point lead over both John Hunter Nemechek and Stewart Friesen and is eyeing his first regular-season championship, which he could clinch from the pole at Pocono Raceway on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And while Smith is having a career year — his three wins and nine top fives are career-bests and his 13 top 10s are one shy of his career-best total (14, 2021) — it’s the extracurricular work he did in early June that he feels impacted his Truck season the most.
Smith filled in for Chris Buescher in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway on June 5, making his series debut in the No. 17 Ford for RFK Racing and finishing 17th while Buescher was out due to COVID-19 protocols. That opportunity, Smith believes, changed his season.
“I felt like it taught me a lot in the areas where you need to be good at the little things,” Smith said Friday at Pocono. “Because those little things are what equal race wins. And so I feel like since then, I’ve been able to be probably more consistent, and I feel like putting together those four weeks of really good consistency of — I think my worst finish is third. I feel like that’s what has gotten me in this position and the points-wise for the regular season.”
He’s right: Since finishing ninth in the Truck race at Gateway, he’s finished second (Sonoma Raceway), third (Knoxville Raceway), second (Nashville Superspeedway) and second (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course).
“I feel like I’m just a way better driver of what I learned in that one race,” Smith said. “Just, if you think you’re decent on pit road, no you’re not. If you think you’re good on restarts, not even close. The Cup level is just a little bit different. A lot a bit different with just everything. First through last, everyone is really good.”
A 17th-place finish doesn’t necessarily jump off the sheet for most people. For Smith, he was elated as his goals changed throughout the course of the weekend.
“Starting out in the race, I was just getting everyone telling me, ‘Man, if you finish all laps, that’s huge with how hard these Cup cars are to drive,\"” Smith said. “And obviously, it was even my seat or anything in it. So that was my main goal. ”
Eventually, that goal grew to a top 25, then to a top 20. Racing for 15th during the second stage, Smith just hoped he would finish the race. He crossed the line 17th, notching that top-20 finish but almost eager for more.
“I feel like honestly, as excited as I sound for a 17th-place finish, I felt like we could have ended up a lot better,” Smith said. “I felt like our car was pretty good there at the end of the race.”
A key factor for Smith that weekend was sound mentorship from that day’s teammate and co-owner, Brad Keselowski.
“What Brad had told me going into the weekend is, ‘You don’t have anything to prove. You already proved it with me calling you,\"” Smith said. “And so I felt like that went a really long way with me because I am probably the type of (guy that’s like), man, this is my opportunity. I want to go try to do something or make something out of it. But him saying that I felt like went a long way.”
This weekend, Smith sits on the brink of a regular-season championship and could come away with a series-best fourth win in the 60-lap contest. Perhaps his cushion wouldn’t be as comfortable without that Cup performance.
“I think it’s definitely just helped all around. That was just a huge opportunity,” Smith said. “I feel like obviously getting that call is showing that they (Cup owners) are paying attention and my stock is up. And I feel like that that just is huge for any driver.”