By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Things didn’t go as planned for the reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Champion in the Round of 8 opener at Bristol Motor Speedway. In what was referred to as a tame race by many competitors with only two non-manufactured cautions and a runtime of just over an hour and fifteen minutes, Zane Smith and the No. 38 team couldn’t get out of their own way.
Smith took the green flag from 10th in the UNOH 200 and was able to finish fifth in Stage One. Having qualified for the Championship 4 the past three years –and successfully getting the job done last year in his first season with crew chief Chris Lawson – the pairing understood the importance of stage points.
When a bulk of the field opted to pit after the opening 55-lap segment, Lawson was adamant on gambling with a differing strategy, which would emphasize track position and stage points by staying out and attempting to complete the 200-lap event in just two stops.
Although unable to prevent runner-up Christian Eckes from scoring his second playoff-point of the night on fresh tires, Smith was able to manage his tight-handling Ford F-150 to a second-place finish in Stage Two with track position being a premium at the 0.533-mile oval.
“It’s a really cool race track,” Smith said. “But, man, a terrible race. You just can’t move around and the PJ1 (traction compound) is so dominant. You saw how dominant it was – I had 100 laps on my tires and almost won the stage somehow. My truck was terrible in the second stage, but … track position is king.”
For all intents and purposes, Lawson’s strategy paid off, as Smith wound up with 15 stage points – the second-most on the day to Eckes’ 20. But in the end, he would only walk away with an additional 13 points after finishing 26th.
Primed for a late-race charge, Smith was penalized on the final stop of the night for pitting outside of his box and was forced to restart the final stage from the tail-end of the field with only 80 laps to go.
“I thought I was in,” Smith said. “I knew Parker (Kligerman) was in front of me, so I got told to stop short. I just kind of angled myself out, and then that penalty caught me off guard, because typically whenever you’re out, they’ll wave you forward or wave you back in.
“We weren’t really racing anyone on pit road. I just think Chris (Lawson) and them couldn’t really see the right side of the truck on how little we were out. Definitely a rough night, but wherever you were going to restart is where you were going to run.”
Leaving the opening race in the Round of 8, Smith sits 15 points out of a spot in the Championship 4 as the first driver below the cutoff. Unfortunately for the reigning champion, next up is the ultimate wild-card event at Talladega Superspeedway on September 30.
Luckily, the 24-year-old has two superspeedway victories, including one this season. However, both have come at Daytona International Speedway.
I’m not trying to be a negative Nelly, but it’s just an odd round for the final four,” Smith said. “Talladega to get into the [Championship 4] is a little odd, so who knows? On that one, we’ve obviously won on superpeedways with (Front Row Motorsports), but it’s anyone’s battle. And then I feel like the only real place that’s a true tell is Homestead (Miami Speedway), so hopefully we run well there.”