DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The 2023 version of Daytona Speedweeks is looking very familiar to ones of recent years. Last year, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson each earned front row starting spots for the Daytona 500. They’d do so again this time around.
For the Duels, for the third time in the last five years, Joey Logano won one of the 150-mile qualifying races. Also, for the second time in three years, Aric Almirola did so too.
Last year, Zane Smith won the NextEra Energy 250. This year, in front of the largest Truck Series crowd since 2011, he did so again.
For the first time in over a decade, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season opener had a repeat winner as Smith backed up last year’s triumph at the Daytona International Speedway with a rain shortened victory in Friday night’s race.
“I know there’s about a million ways to get one at Daytona, but we’re proving that,” Smith said. “Obviously wanted to go back racing there, somewhat, to duke it out with good friends of mine actually, but, hey, we’ll take a win at Daytona any day we can get it. Just a huge shout-out to everyone at Front Row Motorsports. This whole group, I’ve said it over and over again, they work their guts out, and they prove it. Locked into the playoffs, it’s like a repeat of last year.”
Smith started the race in 15th and bailed out at the end of both stages to stay out of trouble. Good thing he did because a six truck accident took place on the backstretch coming to the green-checkers to signify the end of the second stage. By being well behind it, Smith avoided any damage to his No. 38 Ford.
“I tried to play that race as smart as possible,” said Smith, who will race in the DAYTONA 500 for the first time on Sunday. “When it was getting really aggressive, I was getting out of it. I knew these patches of rain were a thing in our Ford meeting earlier in the day. I didn’t think it would stick around for this long.
“I just wanted to be there after Stage 2 was over. You never know what can happen. A huge, huge shoutout to all the race fans. I apologize so much that we couldn’t go back racing for you all. Hopefully, we’ll give you guys a good show tomorrow (in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race), and I’ll be out there Sunday—so super excited about that.”
With a clean truck, Smith made the winning pass on Corey LaJoie in Turn 3 on Lap 64 and for the next nine laps, would hold the field back. On Lap 69, the caution was displayed for third weather interruption of the night. On Lap 73, NASCAR displayed the red flag for the third time as well. Even against NASCAR’s best wishes, after a 1-hour, 54-second rain delay and five caution laps in efforts to go back green to finish this, rain began to fall again which left NASCAR no choice but to call it early.
Smith would celebrate his 8th career Truck Series win tying him with William Byron, Sheldon Creed, Brendan Gaughan and Austin Hill for 20th all-time. He won last year’s race in overtime after leading only three laps all night.
At least he paced the field for 11 on Friday.
Tanner Gray was scored in second while Christian Eckes, Colby Howard and Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.
“Obviously, with the way our night was going, second is a good night for us,” said Gray, whose finish was a career-best in 72 starts. “Not as smooth of a race as we’d like—I got caught up in about every wreck there was.
“All in all, came out with a good finish. That’s all we can ask for.”
Racing for the newly-minted TRICON Garage team, Gray said his Toyota had suffered damage to the front splitter during the two earlier incidents.
“Just really had to focus on getting it fixed, then trying to get our lap back,” Gray said.
“Overall with the rain, going back green there, I was a little bit nervous just because I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to push as well as what I probably needed to to be in contention to win, but with that being said, these speedway races, there’s a lot of things that happen, and everything kind of gets wild at the end.
“You never know what can happen, but yeah, just kind of a hectic race for us, but yeah.”
He says even if it did go back green, he didn’t feel like he had much for Smith to win.
“Not really, Gray admitted. “Not unless something big happened and I was able to get a big push from behind. Someone that had been pretty dedicated to me. Yeah, most of our splitter was gone, had a hole in the right front, door was caved in from the left rear. Just a lot of damage that I felt like even being behind Zane made it tough for me to really get to him and push him as well as what I felt like I needed to.
“But like I said, you never know. Like I said, I’m happy to finish second with how our truck looked after, but at the same time, I’m a competitor, and I want to race, and a win locks you into the playoffs. Can kind of go back and forth.”
While the race was a messy one, in just 79 laps completed, we saw 20 lead changes. That’s more than last year’s total (18) in 37 less laps turned.
Smith Keeps Winning
Zane Smith is carrying a lot of momentum with him into his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500. He won last year’s season finale at Phoenix for his first career championship. His next race was the sports car event the day prior to the Rolex 24 last month here in Daytona. He won that.
He raced his way into the Great American Race on Thursday night and now 24 hours later, he won the Truck Series season opener at the World Center of Racing.
“I mean, that was something we kind of joked about,” Smith said of this momentum. “I mean, really from the final half of the year last year and then rolling into this year, I just felt like we just had so much momentum. I knew our trucks were going to be good, and firing off practices yesterday was probably the best speedway truck I’ve had. I wasn’t too worried about qualifying much as just worried about getting caught up in someone else’s mess. Sure enough, they were not too smart in the beginning, and I just kind of hung around right behind them and waited for their mistakes, and obviously I didn’t know the rain was going to come and shorten the race, but I knew that how we kept coming in and topping off that we were setting ourselves up to lead that final stage. That’s what we did.
“Obviously just fell a little short of finishing the thing, but I feel like we would have had a great shot regardless.”
The last two years of this event, the race winner went on to win the season championship as well.
Similar Top 5 To Last Year
3 of the 5 drivers to finish in the top 5 a year ago did so again on Friday. Zane Smith went back-to-back but Tanner Gray took his fourth place run in 2022 and turned it into a runner-up this time around. Christian Eckes was third in both races.
Eckes led four times for a race-high 19 laps including taking home the first stage win of the season as well.
Tough Race To Gain Any Momentum
Friday’s season opener was a tough one to get any sort of momentum during. The box score shows 79 laps completed. However, 7 cautions and four red flags totaling nearly 1-hour and 13-minutes just forced this race to struggle to get going.
Even more so, out of those 79 laps, 40 of them were under caution with only 39 of them under green flag conditions.
From the drop of the green flag we witnessed rain falling which saw the first four laps under yellow. Then, as they’d go back green, two laps later it went yellow again for more moisture.
They’d finally get some momentum going but that all stopped on Lap 20 for the stage break. A couple green flag laps later, the big one occurred in the tri-oval among eight Trucks. Then, the first rain delay occurred.
That lasted 13-minutes and 3-seconds. We’d get restarted before a caution to end the second stage a lap early when Stewart Friesen made a late block sparking a six truck crash on the backstretch.
In the final stage, two more cautions slowed us down before the final rain shower put this race to an end.
The last driver to win back-to-back Daytona races was Todd Bodine in 2008 and 2009.