DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Michael McDowell took his yellow No. 34 Love’s Travel Centers Ford to victory lane in last year’s Daytona 500. In the opening NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race of the 2022 season, the yellow Love’s Travel Centers Ford was once again making the left hand turn into Ruoff Victory Lane with the anticipation of celebration.
This time, it was donning the No. 38 Ford in the Truck Series with new driver for the team Zane Smith.
Smith, 22, was winless for much of the 2021 season. He was questioning his future in this sport. It wasn’t that he doubted himself. It was just that he wasn’t winning and didn’t have anything lined up for this year yet.
Then came a clutch victory in the Martinsville playoff race to stamp his name into the Championship 4 for the second straight season. That helped open up this opportunity for him.
He knew coming back to GMS Racing wasn’t likely in the cards. Despite being second in each of the last two seasons in the final standings, he and the team were likely going in a different direction.
With Anthony Alfredo and Front Row Motorsports parting ways on the Cup side, it left the No. 38 Ford open for the taking in NASCAR’s premiere series. The team promoted Truck Series driver Todd Gilliland to replace him.
That in turn left the Truck ride open. Smith was the best option.
In race No. 1 together, Smith was victorious at Daytona and puts himself back in the playoffs with an automatic spot by virtue of his fourth career victory.
“I truthfully believe this is the first of a few this year,” he said. “I feel like I’ve clicked the best ever with a team, and it’s awesome to start out with this momentum.”
Smith notes that this victory is a dream come true here. It’s something he’s dreamt of as a kid.
“Yeah, really as a kid, I grew up coming here racing my go-kart race after Christmas on the road course. I was like, damn, it would be pretty cool to win here in NASCAR,” Smith said. “At that time I was like 10 years old.
“I never thought it would happen, especially with my past two years here, just always having a shot right at the very end and then not working out. There’s just so many variables to win here is why it’s so hard to win here.
“But I just felt like I really read the race the best I’ve ever done and read the people around me and just really tried to listen to Josh Williams, my spotter, and just play it smart and see where the cards fell.
“Luckily they fell right for me.”
Like I said, never thought I’d be in Victory Lane at Daytona, but pretty dang cool.
The path to the win though didn’t come easy under the lights at the World Center of Racing. Smith, was one of 30 Trucks running in the lead draft in the end but not in the lead. That was Christian Eckes who was leading the top lane. Smith, was leading the bottom lane but a car length back.
John Hunter Nemechek was third in line in the top avenue and was pushing Tyler Ankrum who was one spot ahead of him and above Smith. Nemechek, bumped Ankrum one too many times and it sent his No. 16 Toyota spinning across the track to spark a 19 Truck melee at the start/finish line.
The momentum slowed Eckes up enough to allow Smith to cross the finish line narrowly ahead of Eckes for what he thought would be the win.
The flag man was waving the white flag to signal the last lap. The green lights were illuminating from the flag stand to signify the race was green. But, the yellow lights were detonated and those are the official lights.
It meant the race wouldn’t be finished and push us to overtime.
Smith was dejected. This was going to be a win taken away wasn’t it? He was leading but could he hold the field off in overtime?
He was getting good drafting help from behind via Parker Kligerman and that plus Kris Wright and Jason White having contact off the tri-oval after Smith had taken the white flag sparked an early end and clinched the win for Smith.
“It’s something else, man,” Smith said of winning at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. “This place is its own, I’ll tell you that. Literally my heart hurt during that red flag. I thought we had it.
“Just hats off to this whole group. They’ve really put the work in and it’s so damn cool to see when it pays off. Man, this is going to be a really fun year and I’m going to try and make it a record year for myself.”
Smith, had no career top 10’s in his two prior Daytona starts but now becomes the sixth straight different winner of the NextEra Energy 250.
Kaz Grala started the trend in 2017 only to be followed by Johnny Sauter, Austin Hill, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and now Smith. He’s the second Ford driver to win in the last three years too.
Last year’s season champion Ben Rhodes finished runner-up in his No. 99 Toyota. A year ago, Rhodes won at Daytona and the season championship too beating Smith for the 2021 title. Can Smith repay the favor this November in Phoenix?
It was Rhodes’ third top five in the last five Daytona starts for him.
Christian Eckes was third in his No. 98 Toyota for his first top 20 here. He was 22nd in both 2019 and 2020. Tanner Gray and Kligerman rounded out the top five.
“Just a couple more laps,” Eckes said after securing his 13th top five in his 46th career start. “Yeah, I felt like we were in a good position there. I felt like I was kind of a sitting duck in the leader, and of course it didn’t turn out that way.
“At the end of the day, really proud of these AHI Toyota Tundra guys. Obviously wish we could have won, but good way to start off the year.”
For Thorsport, they had won this race the last two years but tonight comes home 2nd and 3rd.
Kligerman, who was the last driver to qualify for the race on speed, started 31st and rallied into the top five ultimately giving that winning push to Smith, who now has four victories and was championship runner-up last year. It was the kind of dramatic racing – there were 18 lead changes – and finish that fans have come to expect of Truck races on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway high banks and it did not disappoint.
“This is just huge to get this momentum,” said Kligerman, a part-time series competitor who also does national racing broadcast work for NBC.
He was particular proud of Friday’s effort considering his truck team has only one fulltime employee.
“It’s just such an honor” Kligerman said. “I’m so grateful to have the chance to just show up here, let alone go out there and compete and reel off a top five. We’re just firing on all cylinders.”
The race was dominated for most of it by the Toyota camp. They went 1-2-3-4-7 across the finish/line to end the opening stage. The second stage saw them sweep the entire top five and put six trucks in the top seven.
They were 1-2-3 on the restart with 11 to go in regulation before a Ford in Smith stole the show in leading the final three laps.
This was the fourth straight year this race went to overtime with the last five all lasting over 2-hours in length.
Nemechek, led a race-high 50 laps including sweeping both stages but was only 24th when it was all said and done.
The race went incident free until Jack Wood crashed by himself in Turn 2 on Lap 63. Prior to that, the first 62 laps only had two cautions with both being for stage breaks.
We’d see five cautions of the final 42 laps.