By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. – No longer the bridesmaid of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is Zane Smith, who won in a thrilling overtime finish in Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway.
“Oh, my God, third time’s a charm. I want this shit more than anyone in the world. I don’t care what anyone says,” an elated Smith after capturing the title. “Thank you to all you race fans, my whole team. Oh, my God, I was crying that whole lap.
“I’ve wanted this championship for so long. I’ve wanted this moment all my life.”
Over the past two seasons, Smith ended up finishing second in the Championship 4 race. As much as he came close to winning the title, Smith’s future remained unknown as he didn’t have a ride set up.
Through various phone calls and conversations, a deal was made to drive for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Ford team. He replaced the departed Todd Gilliland, who went on to the team’s Cup Series program.
That very team turned out to be an organization that Smith didn’t reach out. Instead, FRM reached out to him as Smith sent over 120 voicemails during the off-season. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
The Californian wasted no time to set a mark for FRM by winning the season opener at Daytona. Since then, he won three more races, including the one that mattered most Friday night. To get to the position Smith ended up required tremendous decision making.
With four laps left in regulation, Smith faced pressure from Ty Majeski for the third spot. Things went awry for Majeski, who got sideways and made slight contact with the Turn 2 wall.
The caution forced the 150-lap race to go into overtime which led to Smith choosing not restarting alongside race leader Ben Rhodes, but start a row behind.
The madness boiled down to those final two laps with Smith utilizing every inch of the Dogleg and got by both Rhodes and Chandler Smith. Zane would take full command of the lead in Turn 2, but wasn’t able to fully clear both competitors coming to the white flag.
It’s one thing to lead one lap in overtime, but to fend of the competition for the money lap is a whole different story. Chandler would lose second to Rhodes as the latter was a mad man, looking to win back-to-back championships. Rhodes fought hard but came up short as Smith brings FRM its first NASCAR title.
“I wasn’t going to let it go down like that,” Smith on the championship-winning restart. “I was either wrecked or I was winning this thing. There was no other option.”
Smith’s crew chief Chris Lawson described that after the final pit stop where they put on fresh tires, it was up to his driver to make it count.
“I felt strongly about it. I didn’t second-guess it for sure,” said Lawson. “Even after we came out behind Ben, and I still felt like even if it would have stayed green right there, we still had a really good shot at it. No, I think it was definitely the right call.
“Rhodes definitely held on better than I anticipated, too, so I’ve got to give credit to them because I think they had a better truck than they thought,” Lawson continued.
“It was good. Yeah, I think seeing Zane’s demeanor and his — he just keeps it calm and cool, and I think that led to my decision, too, because I knew he wasn’t going to overreact or do anything crazy. I think he was just going to make it happen. Yeah, felt good about it.”
The team that once struggled to run full races a decade ago now have bragging rights to where the organization is slowly becoming a hot bed for folks wanting to work for.
More so that Michael McDowell won the 2021 Daytona 500 and Smith bringing the team a Truck Series title. Such feat that FRM General Manager Jerry Freeze feels elated about the team’s future potential going forward.
“The wins and now the championship I believe will just further cement Front Row as a competitive organization capable of winning races for sure, now winning a championship in one of NASCAR’s higher series,” said Freeze.
“I’ll tell you guys that the one thing that’s been kind of interesting, we lost — our crew chief with the 34 (McDowell) is moving on in Blake Harris. That’s a blow to us that I thought was really going to cripple us. Blake has brought a lot to our Cup operation this year.
“I told Michael a few days after Blake had made his decision, I said, you know, it’s kind of like a bad news-good news situation from what I can see so far. The bad news is we’ve run so good, there’s teams that want to hire our people. The good news is we’ve run so good, we’re getting a lot of decent phone calls from guys that want to come to work for us, and that wasn’t happening in the past,” Freeze continued.
“So I think just industry-wide and especially in the situation with Blake moving on from the 34, I’ve really noticed it that I’ve had conversations that we didn’t have before. We’re embarking on our own pit crew program next year, and you’re talking to guys that you know are really talented guys that really like what they hear about what we have going on.
“It’s been different for sure, and I think winning the championship here tonight, winning another truck race will just help in people’s perspective of Front Row Motorsports of maybe what they thought of it a couple years ago versus what they think about it now.”
Coming into the Championship 4, Smith expressed his thoughts of bringing FRM a title. Not only that, the title marked Ford’s first Truck Series title since Greg Biffle in 2000. The drought finally ended in dramatic fashion.
“Last year and the year before we showed so much speed and should have won a lot more races than we did, but Bob Jenkins is the only reason why I’m here right now,” said Smith. “Without him, none of this would be possible. When I came here all I cared about were the guys that were on this team.
“I had seen their work ethic and I knew the effort they put in and I know they want it as bad as I do. I didn’t care what the trucks or anything looked like all I knew is the work ethic was there and we could make a championship out of this team.”
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