Zane Smith ‘happy as could be’ with top-ten finish at Charlotte

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 22: Zane Smith, driver of the #38 Wellcare Ford, walks the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2023 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Zane Smith impressed in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In just his sixth-ever start in the Cup Series, the reigning Truck Series champion wheeled his Front Row Motorsports Mustang to a tenth place finish, his first in the series.

The 600-miler might be NASCAR’s most challenging race, but Zane got out of the car with a smile.

“I am so happy, as happy as could be, really,” he said after the race. “I feel like I could go another 100 more!”

He said that preparedness was down to effective physical training leading up to the race.

“Obviously a very long race so I had to prepare pretty much this whole month, just trying to get ready for it. I was happy about the training side of things.”

In terms of preparing for the car, though, he didn’t get much experience.

“For previous races I got a lot of sim time in,” he said, “but for Charlotte I probably only had thirty minutes to an hour, so that’s kind of been my seat time.”

“But leaning on my teammates and other drivers in general and looking at back at past notes is kind of how I went about it.”

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 29: Corey LaJoie, driver of the #7 AeroVanti Chevrolet, Zane Smith, driver of the #38 Boot Barn Ford, and Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, during the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2023 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The top-ten and the attention surrounding it was more than Smith expected going in, with the goal just being to get seat time in the Cup Series in preparation to eventually move up.

“I just kind of learned and learned and learned as the race went on. Our goal initially was just to try to make it to the end and finish on the lead lap, and then I was passing and running with some really good guys. So I knew we needed to get aggressive and get where we could, and we were able to do so.”

A bold strategy call meant Smith got to learn about leading a Cup Series race when rookie crew chief Ryan Bergenty kept him out in a late caution, giving him the lead for the restart. He was able to get fresh tires when the final caution flew shortly thereafter and used them to his advantage to climb back to tenth.

“I mean, talk about feeding me to the wolves!” he remarked. “I was going to be the leader on my first mile-and-a-half and sixth Cup start, ahead of two Hendrick cars. I knew that was going to be a handful I just didn’t want to embarrass myself by wrecking in front of the field.”

“Fortunately, I was able to hold on to that track position as much as I could and then those cautions fell. And then we pit,” he said. “I didn’t want to get trapped back there, so I just went to the fence and I think I got by eight guys in one lap.”

It’s just the third top-ten finish for the team this year, too, with fourteen races complete. Those other two were earned by the team’s primary driver, Todd Gilliland. Smith spoke about the difficulty of maintaining that relationship with Gilliland.

“They have three of us,” he said about Front Row Motorsports, “and two Cup seats, and so we’re all aware of the situation and all understand how this racing world works. I mean, Todd is a great friend of mine and that’s the worst part about our job.”

“We try to handle it the best we can,” he explained. “I didn’t intend on it being this way, and it’s definitely been tough on everyone on the team to share two drivers, especially with a rookie crew chief.”

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 14: Zane Smith, driver of the #38 Long John Silver’s Ford, waits on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Long John Silver’s 200 at Martinsville Speedway on April 14, 2023 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s next appearance in the Cup Series will be at Sonoma, his first road course in the series. Smith started in karting before moving up the oval ladder to NASCAR, and intends to leverage that experience.

“Yes, it’s a completely different car, but it’s still road course racing,” he acknowledged. “So hopefully my background in road course racing will still apply to the Next Gen.”

He has a few more races confirmed with Front Row for the rest of the year, and he hinted at a potential deal for this season as well, though he ruled out Rick Ware Racing, with whom he made a one-off start at Martinsville.

“I’m just trying to race more in general,” he said, “whether it be on the IMSA side like we did in the beginning of the year, or getting my feet wet in the Cup Series, or hopefully some Xfinity races or something.”

On the Truck Series side, it’s been a rough few weeks for the defending champion, with three finishes in a row outside the top twenty. He said his team will focus on building back that consistency and hunt for more wins to add to his two already this year.

“That Coke 600 run just put our confidence back where it needs to be and fired everyone back up.”

Owen Johnson