As Daytona 500 looms, 2022 Truck Series champ Zane Smith eager to enhance Cup resume
After conquering the mountain peak in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2022, Zane Smith will attempt to tackle similar and different obstacles in 2023.
Since soaring above all NCTS competition on Nov. 4 to claim the 2022 championship for Front Row Motorsports, the 23-year-old has felt a metaphorical weight lift off of his shoulders. Such an opening, in turn, has helped him focus on new opportunities as the 2023 grind begins to gear into motion.
Excited for this opportunity to race in the @NASCAR Cup series with @Team_FRM. So happy to represent @AmbetterHealth & @WellcarePlans starting @DAYTONA! pic.twitter.com/7WLTthinNe
— Zane Smith (@ZaneSmith) February 7, 2023
For Smith, an opportunity comes in the form of attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 aboard the No. 36 Wellcare Ford Mustang on Feb. 19 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And while a new calendar year might mean opportunity, it will not mean a sharp change in mindset.
“I don‘t know what the right word for it is, but probably, I don‘t want to say less pressure because I feel like anything is more pressure trying to defend this title,” Smith said in a Tuesday teleconference through Zoom. “I‘m just ready to get racing. I feel like I have done so much talking about it, and I‘m just ready to get going, really.
“Like I said, just with that championship being captured is a huge weight off my shoulders. Ready to get back going again and hopefully capturing some more wins.”
RELATED: Zane Smith to make multiple Cup starts in No. 38
In addition to defending his 2022 truck title and attempting to qualify for the “Great American Race,” Smith will be splitting time with Todd Gilliland as pilot of the FRM No. 38.
Cup contests Smith is tentatively slated to partake in include Phoenix Raceway (March 12), Talladega Superspeedway (April 23), Sonoma Raceway (June 11), Texas Motor Speedway (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). Centene Corporation will partner with Smith and Front Row Motorsports across the Truck and Cup Series in 2023. Wellcare will partner with Smith during his Daytona 500 qualifying attempt and his Cup races at Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Ambetter Health will sponsor at Texas and Charlotte. The multi-series partnership was announced Tuesday.
Aside from three full-time seasons in the Truck Series for a total of 69 races, Smith has additional experience in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, logging 11 combined starts (2019, 2021), two top-five and seven top-10 finishes. Smith additionally participated in his only Cup Series start to date last season when he subbed for Chris Buescher in the No. 17 RFK Racing Ford at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, where he finished 17th.
RELATED: Zane Smith riding Cup one-off to Truck Series advantage
While the finish might not have brought the luster that a top-10 result might bring, it did provide the racer with a dose of positive momentum. After his Gateway bout in Cup, Smith translated the experience into the truck circuit, following through with 10 top-10 finishes over his last 12 NCTS races, including a victory at Phoenix Raceway to seize the title.
Although the 2022 calendar has since turned, Smith will continue to look back at the Gateway opportunity as a chance to brew more success as he races more frequently on Sundays.
From driving with Cup champions to learning the ins and outs of what it takes to win at the Cup level, Smith is eager for the challenge. Perhaps a new mountain peak will be conquered as a result.
MORE: 2023 Cup schedule | 2023 Truck schedule
“Everyone in the Cup Series is good at everything,” Smith said. “And so, the guys that, I don‘t want to say you forget about, but you don‘t hear mentioned as much, have multiple championships, multiple race wins and have been around in the sport for a long time, so these guys are no joke. Just when you race around them, you can mess up here and there and still get away with a thing or two in Trucks for Xfinity.
“On the Cup side, you have to be perfect, and obviously, the big things on the pie chart gone. So, being perfect in all of those small areas, whether it is on pit road or certain things on restarts, are huge, and that‘s the difference between first and 15th in the Cup Series. So, these races that I have, I hope I can learn as much as I can and kind of just improve on all of these little things that I look for.”