MARTINSVILLE, VA — Zane Smith has no contract in place for the 2022 NASCAR season. There’s one race weekend remaining in 2021 and the second year NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver has a shot at a championship in it. Smith, went off strategy after the first stage and it paid off to put him in a position to win Saturday’s United Rentals 200 from the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
He found himself in the lead on Lap 106 because of that and afterwards, would battle with Carson Hocevar on several restarts in the final stage for the top spot. On one of those, Hocevar jumped the start and was penalized for it.
Smith, would settle into the lead after before the best Truck of the day in Todd Gilliland came storming back. Gilliland, moved Smith out of the lead on Lap 173, after Smith had led the previous 49 laps and previous 64 of 68 laps.
Gilliland, was gone and well on his way to making this Round of 8 three non playoff winners. Then came the Lap 184 caution for a big crash in Turn 4. We’d have another yellow on Lap 196 setting up an overtime finish.
Gilliland and Stewart Friesen shared the front row. Smith restarted on the bottom lane behind. Friesen pushed hard knowing that the needed to likely win to just secure his spot into the Championship 4. He was that close, so why not do everything in his power. Gilliland wasn’t going for a title, so he could rough him up and apologize later if needed.
The contact between these two allowed Smith to make it three-wide at Turn 2 exit. They’d each battle for the lead coming to the white flag before Austin Hill shoved Smith too hard and he made contact with Gilliland’s rear bumper.
Smith, says he and Hill had a run-in earlier in the race and that move by Hill shoving him was likely payback. It cost Gilliland the win. Friesen was pushing hard too but was overzealous and he crashed in Turn 1 on the final lap.
Smith, was the leader at the time and with all the chaos behind him, NASCAR had no choice but to throw the caution which due to them already taking the white flag, the race was over.
Smith, scored his first win in over a year (Aug. 21, 2020 at Dover) and his third victory of his young Truck Series career as a result. By doing so, he guaranteed himself a spot into the Championship 4 next Friday night at the Phoenix Raceway for the second straight season.
Smith, had to win in order to make this happen. He came into the weekend -40 points and after nabbing eight stage points, a win was the only path to the final round. But, the GMS Racing driver had one top five finish all season and was 29th or worse in three of his last five starts in his No. 21 Chevrolet.
That all didn’t end up mattering. He’s racing for a championship next weekend.
Hill, finished runner-up in his No. 16 Toyota for his first top five in 11 career starts at Martinsville and first top five on the season since his back-to-back wins to close out the regular season. His playoff finishes entering Saturday’s race was 23rd, 12th, 24th, 10th and 32nd respectively.
Now, he gets a much needed top five.
Chandler Smith also needing a win on Saturday but came up just short in his No. 18 Toyota. He’d finish third in his rookie start at Martinsville for his second top five of the entire postseason. He’s been 19th or worse in four of his last six starts entering.
Parker Kligerman had an impressive day in finishing fourth in his No. 75 Toyota while Matt Crafton rounded out the top five in fifth.
Here are the top five takeaways.
Rough Racing Borderlines Out Of Line Respect In The Truck Series
Saturday’s race led to a lot of hurt feelings but also showed that a lot of the drivers in this Truck Series lack the respect of others. We had a lot of drivers racing over their heads which sparked a playoff record 14 caution flags in 204 laps of racing. The bad thing is, a lot of them could have been avoided but they weren’t due to drivers not being smart in the corners and/or paybacks being given.
That resulted in a final stage where no momentum could be found. We saw nine cautions fly over the final 90 laps of racing. That’s far too many.
“Whip somebody’s ass,” Crafton said on the driving in the series now. “If they wreck you, at the end of the day, don’t just talk about it, do something about it. That’s my motto. These guys work too hard. Sponsors pay too much money to get wrecked and (shown) no class at that.
“Just bust somebody in the mouth and that will fix that.”
The biggest problem was a non playoff driver in Austin Wayne Self wrecking a championship favorite in John Hunter Nemechek on Lap 129. Self, hooked Nemechek in Turn 3 and nearly ended the Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers’ championship hopes by virtue of that. Luckily for Nemechek and Self, JHN advanced on by four points still despite a 39th place finish.
The accident looked like Self was issuing a payback for Nemechek bumping into his bumper a corner earlier. He says it wasn’t as he just “held his line” which we know is a complete farce. That’s not a line you take and when you have a championship driver below you, you should think about giving an inch.
He’d say he wasn’t aware Nemechek was below him which furthers his case that maybe racing isn’t for him. If you don’t have the situational awareness to know that, just park it.
That comes a race after Tate Fogleman crashed Nemechek for the win in the tri-oval at Talladega.
“There’s nothing that NASCAR has done. It’s just like the (Self) incident. It’s blatant that he just hooked me in the right rear for no apparent reason and wrecked us. That was that. There should be some type of consequence there.
“I view that as the same thing as Joey Logano-Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. They took each other out in their own playoff deal. (Kenseth) wasn’t in the playoffs (he had been eliminated). How can you view that differently? It’s being more consistent with calls and seeing those scenarios.”
The lack of respect in the series grows by the race and it’s starting to get way out of hand. Something needs to happen soon or this series will end up being an utter embarrassment. Saturday’s racing, or lack there of, was completely avoidable.
The thing is, these younger drivers grew up racing the wrong way and feel like in order to be up front in NASCAR, you have to use your bumper and be aggressive in nature and style. That’s now how you race though which is why the series’ races look like amateur hour.
“You don’t have to ask me about respect, I was trying to avoid people all day,” said Ben Rhodes. “I let plenty of people go by that were beating my back bumper off. Sure enough, when they got up there in a fighting match, I would drive back by them once they started racing side-by-side and doing something stupid.”
Pit Strategy Key Today
The pit strategy and when/how drivers came down pit road on Saturday shaped this race. The first two stages were dominated by Todd Gilliland, John Hunter Nemechek, Sheldon creed, Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. So, with Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar, Zane Smith and Chandler Smith needing a win, they decided to go off strategy.
Everyone pit on Lap 50 after the first stage break. On Lap 81 while under caution for the third time of the day for debris, those drivers and a few more hit pit lane. They could do so and know they could comfortably make it to the end on fuel.
That basically flipped the field when the top drivers hit pit lane for their final time on Lap 104 after the second stage ended. Gilliland was the only one who made it back up to fight for the win as in the case for both Smith’s and Friesen, there they were in the top five battling for a win in the end.
The pit strategy to hit pit lane when they did was the right one.
Championship 4 Set – Defending Champion Is OUT, Nemechek Narrowly Makes It By
Sheldon Creed won’t be defending his championship. He missed out on the final round by four points. He blamed Matt Crafton for that as Crafton got into his teammate on a late race restart after his teammate got into him prior. That pushed the No. 98 Toyota up the track in Turn 2 and Creed had no where to go but to go higher to avoid him and by doing so, he got into the wall with heavy contact.
He’d finish 17th in the end and due to that and Zane Smith winning, he’s now out.
Carson Hocevar went off strategy but a restart violation cost him. He’d finish 12th. He was 10th or worse in nine of his last 12 starts.
Chandler Smith rebounded to finish third in his first Martinsville start but being 19th or worse in four of his last six entering keeps him from racing for a title.
Stewart Friesen also narrowly misses out and that’s due to the late race contact which sent him into the Turn 1 wall on the final lap. He was -29 and despite having four top sixes in six playoff races, he’s out while a guy with five top sixes all season races on for a title next weekend.
That’s this format for you in a nutshell. You need to win and Friesen hasn’t won since Phoenix in 2019 (48 races). That cost him a chance at a championship but allows Zane Smith one since he ended his own 30 race winless drought.
John Hunter Nemechek despite a 39th place finish advances on by four points and that’s due to all of his playoff points he accumulated during the regular season. Which is why the playoff system worked flawlessly in the Truck Series with a driver being successful all season getting by despite a crash in the semifinal cutoff race and a driver getting by to the final round via a win that wouldn’t have otherwise.
ThorSport teammates Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes will join them at Phoenix.
The thing is, Smith is the only driver left to have won this postseason. Crafton, hasn’t won in his last 37 starts (Kansas 2020). Nemechek hasn’t won in his last eight (Pocono 2021) and Rhodes in his last 19 (Daytona road course 2021). Can any of them turn it on now?
Crafton, likely enters as the hottest driver with eight top 10’s in his last 10 races on the season and three top fives this postseason. Nemechek, has seven top fours in his last 12 but three of his six playoff races have seen him finish 22nd or worse. Rhodes, only has a pair of top fives in his last 11 starts while Smith has just two top fives all year.
That has the door wide open next Friday night.
Gilliland Has To Wonder What Might Have Been
If Gateway didn’t happen where Gilliland finished 29th and Chandler Smith doesn’t pass John Hunter Nemechek late in Bristol, then Todd Gilliland would likely be racing for a championship next Friday night in the Arizona desert. Gilliland, came into the day having 11 top 10 finishes in his last 12 races. The only one not?
He had 10 top seven’s in that same time frame and three top fives in the last four races.
On Saturday, he led a race-high 133 of 204 laps and was leading coming to the white flag. Yes, he got wrecked, but Saturday further shows that he likely has the best truck in terms of speed heading to the season finale.
Toyota’s Look Stout
75% of the Championship 4 belongs to the Toyota camp. That’s Matt Crafton, Ben Rhodes and John Hunter Nemechek. The only one not is Chevrolet’s Zane Smith. They also had five of the top six finishers Saturday in Martinsville too in what is shaping up to be a banner season for them.