DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — 3 of the 5 drivers to finish in the top five of last year’s NextEra Energy 250 finished there again on Friday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season opener. In fact, they went 1-2-3. One was thrilled his momentum kept going, another just happy to be there again and the third frustrated to be so close for a second straight attempt.
Zane Smith scored his second straight Daytona win and did so by making veteran like decisions throughout the rain shortened event.
Smith started the race in 15th but 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.
“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.”
While Smith knows that there’s a million ways to win at Daytona, Christian Eckes is well aware that there’s several ways to lose. Last year, Eckes was a late caution away from a win here. This year, he led four times for a race-high 19 laps including taking home the first stage win of the season as well.
“I feel like I’m going to have to write a book one day, a thousand ways how to lose a speedway race. Last year we lost two of them on a green-white-checkered, this year we lost them due to rain. I felt like we had a really fast No. 19 NAPA Auto Care Chevrolet, and yeah, that sucks. I wish we could have finished it out.
“I felt like we let a couple of them down tonight. It was cool to win a stage and lead laps, and it’s a good start for sure, but in the same aspect, we came here wanting to win, and yeah, a thousand ways to lose a speedway race.
“Obviously I want to finish these races off. This is kind of why I’m here. I’m here to win. It’s good always to be running up front and to win stages and lead laps, but yeah, we’re here to win. That’s what we set out to do. To finish third is disappointing for sure.”
Tanner Gray backed up his fourth-place finish last year to finish runner-up in this one.
“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.”
Nevertheless, it was a great points night for all three. Each have tons of momentum heading into Las Vegas a couple weeks from now. For Eckes, he not only leaves Daytona with good points, he’s heading to a place to where he won at last year.
“I had a really good points day. I don’t know where we’re at in the points. We might be the leader, we might not be,” he said. “But overall just really proud of everybody at McAnally Hilgemann Racing, and we’ll go to Vegas and try to win there.
“Going into the next couple races is going to be huge. I have no idea what the mile-and-a-half stuff is going to be like, the short track stuff or the road course stuff. Luckily we have two new trucks for the next three, for both of those types of races, and we’ll just do the best we can, and I think as long as the new truck trend translates, because we had a new one tonight, we’ll be just fine.”
For Gray, he’s feeling really confident going to Vegas he says.
“From the time I started in the Truck Series until now, that’s been one of my best tracks, a place that I feel we’ve been able to show up to and still have speed even if our balance wasn’t quite right,” said Gray.
“Obviously with Kyle being in the field and everybody else, it’s going to be a tough race, but yeah, I definitely have that one circled on our calendar of ones that I feel like I expect a lot out of myself and expect a good finish from.
“I’m excited and just got to go back to the shop and study film, figure out how we can get better and show up there ready to go.”
One thing that Gray is cautious about is that he started off last year strong too. A pair of top five finishes to begin 2022 as well as an eighth place run after. However, over the final 20 races, he equaled the amount top 10’s to begin the season with and faded to a 15th place finish.
“I would like to say yes, but last year I finished fourth and was second in points through the first handful of races and ended up having the season that we had,” Gray warned.
“These seasons are long, and there’s so many highs and lows, you’ve just got to learn to manage that and make the lows not so low.
“I need to do a better job on my end doing that, but obviously to come here and run good is awesome. You want to start off well, and especially working with new people, with a new manufacturer, new team, so to speak, it’s nice to come here and get the ball rolling in the right direction.”
No one has the momentum though that Smith has.
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.