AVONDALE, AZ — Zane Smith has been here before. Multiple times. The talented California driver has made the Championship 4 in each of the last two years prior at Phoenix too. However, each ended with a runner-up finish in the final standings and both times he stood in the parking lot afterwards wondering, “what’s next?”
“I’ve stood in the parking lot at Phoenix Raceway for the past three years not knowing what I’m going to be doing the next year,” Smith said.
Last year, he left here with no plans. No future. He made 120 phone calls but each reached a voicemail and no call back. Then came Todd Gilliland moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series. His No. 38 Ford with Front Row Racing was available. Smith, who didn’t leave a voicemail for FRM because he didn’t think they had an availability got a life changing phone call from an unlikely spot.
Front Row Motorsports.
“Front Row was not one of the places that I called. I didn’t even think there was an opportunity,” he quipped.
“I had a ride pretty much set up, and I was excited about it, but it was literally about 30 minutes later after, yeah, after these 120 phone calls probably in the past couple days. I had gotten a call from Front Row Motorsports that they wanted me to run their truck. That really caught my eye because I knew the people that were on the truck, and the people are what makes these things go fast.
“I just recognized their work ethic and how bad they wanted it, and I wanted it really bad, also, especially for my past couple years of losing this.”
In race 1 together, they won Daytona. In race 23? They won Phoenix and took home the 2022 championship in the process. In the middle came a long term extension to keep him in this ride full time in 2023, a Ford ride in the Xfinity Series and a Cup opportunity including the Daytona 500.
That had him in a much different mindset leading into Friday nights season finale.
“I knew going into this, because I’ve been through way worse times, and regardless of outcome tonight, I’m going to have a job next year, and that’s such a weight off your shoulders,” he said.
“With him giving me that confidence, I wanted to reward him with a championship, and I felt like that’s why — I don’t want to say I raced so much harder, but I just couldn’t lose another one. It just wasn’t an option.
“Yeah, just crazy where I’m at mentally and how great things are going in my life right now. I’m just trying to ride it as long as I can.”
However, it didn’t come easy still. Smith dominated early, then saw a late race caution. He went from first to 11th after that final pit stop and looked like the title would fall out of his grasps once again.
“Yeah, I knew our night had gone too smooth at times and we struggled bad on pit road and I went from dominating the race, being the first seed, to restarting 11th with 11 to go as the fourth seed,” he said of the late race drama.
“I wasn’t going to — Bob Jenkins was going to get a wrecked chuck or a championship trophy at the end of the day. I was not going to lose another one.
“It’s scarred me too bad, and yeah, probably the craziest finish I’ve ever been a part of and obviously the biggest win I’ve ever had. But just so proud of everyone.”
This moment. This memory. This is something Smith had always dreamt about and now, it became a reality.
“Since I was a little kid, this is what our goal was, was man, maybe one day if everything is right, we’ll be able to go chase wins in the Truck Series, or I don’t even know if that was realistic then, any top 3 series in NASCAR, and many, many times it seemed so — this ain’t happening.
“We just never gave up, and they probably believed in me more than I believed in myself a lot of times.
“I’m just really happy I proved them right.”