By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
The Huntington Beach, Calif., native and defending Truck Series champion opened 2023 in victory lane after rain brought an early end to Friday night’s NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
After a daring, three-wide move to the bottom of the backstretch allowed Smith to slip underneath then-leader Corey LaJoie, the Front Row Motorsports driver held off TRICON Garage’s Tanner Gray until the skies opened up and forced the field to pit road under caution.
Once the red flag was displayed at 9:51 p.m. ET, with 27 laps remaining, a stoppage of one hour and 54 seconds ensued before NASCAR officials made one more attempt to get the race resumed.
Six more laps were run under the yellow flag before the field was brought back to pit lane and the race was stopped again at 11:06 p.m. ET. From there, the opener was officially declared complete at 11:12 p.m.
Smith led three times for 17 laps Friday night, including the final 15 completed circuits around the 2.5-mile tri-oval. He’ll look to carry his winning momentum into his first Daytona 500 start on Sunday.
“Man, I can’t wait for Sunday now!” exclaimed Smith during his winner’s interview on pit lane. “This whole week has just turned into something special. I’m just loving life right now. What a night.”
Friday marked Smith’s second consecutive Truck Series win at Daytona and the eighth of his 70-race career. One year after winning at Daytona in overtime, he found a new way to victory lane this time.
“I know there’s about a million ways to get one at Daytona, and we’re proving that. Obviously, wanted to go back racing there somewhat and duke it out with good friends of mine, but hey, we’ll take a win at Daytona any day we can get it,” Smith noted. “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.
“We’re locked into the playoffs; it’s like a repeat of last year. I like it a lot.”
Of note, Smith’s win Friday came in the first-ever rain-shortened Truck Series race at Daytona. He’s the second driver to win back-to-back at the World Center of Racing in a truck, joining Todd Bodine (’08-’09).
The Truck Series opener was marred by three multi-truck incidents in the first two thirds of the scheduled distance, prior to the final weather stoppage.
A lap-29 squeeze play in the banking saw Clay Greenfield tipped around in an incident that eliminated Dean Thompson, Hailie Deegan and others early on. Then, Ben Rhodes got into Stewart Friesen on the final lap of stage two down the backstretch to spark a crash that also collected journeyman Bret Holmes.
Rajah Caruth then kicked off the third yellow of the set on lap 58 when he attempted to shoot the middle three-wide against Smith, who came down and made contact with Caruth’s GMS Racing Chevy.
Caruth spun into the pack, generating chaos that swallowed up his teammates Daniel Dye and Grant Enfinger, as well as Rackley W.A.R. driver Matt DiBenedetto.
Enfinger was able to continue, but Caruth and Dye were eliminated due to their crash damage.
After that, a four-lap sprint was all that occurred before the weather rolled in for good and brought an end to the night 21 laps too soon.
Gray ended the night as the runner-up finisher, setting a new career-best mark for himself in the Truck Series, while Christian Eckes was third in his first outing with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing after winning stage one and leading four times for a race-high 19 laps.
Fourth and fifth were Colby Howard and Grant Enfinger, followed by Ty Majeski, stage two winner Tyler Ankrum, Corey Heim, Matt Crafton and 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott.
Polesitter Nick Sanchez, in his Truck Series debut, got shuffled out on the opening lap, never led and was pinned deep in the field due to pit strategy prior to the rain stoppage. He finished 26th in the end.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season continues March 3 at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway with the running of the Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200. Chandler Smith won last year’s edition of the race.