Zane Smith Reflects on Cup Debut, Hopeful for Spark in St. Louis

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

It’s rare for an athlete to forget their professional sports debut and the moments surrounding their dream now realized. In the case of Zane Smith, he made it difficult for many to overlook his first NASCAR Cup Series start at World Wide Technology Raceway in 2022. 

Nearly two years removed from his head-turning introduction to NASCAR’s top ranks, Smith returns to the site of his Cup debut, now in the midst of his rookie campaign for Spire Motorsports. After what’s been a challenging first-half of the season, the 24-year-old is hopeful a trip back to St. Louis can provide a much-needed spark.

Through 14 starts, Smith’s best finish of 13th came all the way back in the season-opener. His most successful outing since was 19th at Austin, Texas – the sixth race of the year. He’s now strung together eight finishes of 24th or worse.

Entering the Coca-Cola 600 last week, Smith was eager to have a shot at replicating his first top-10 in Cup, achieved in the crown jewel event one year ago. Unfortunately, weather prevented the race from resuming in the third segment and left them with a 33rd-place outing. 

Thus, Smith’s debut at WWT Raceway remains his second-best result on a non-drafting track at NASCAR’s premier level. Which is why he’s taking time to reflect on what went right that day and bringing a positive outlook into the Enjoy Illinois 300.

“It’s definitely a day I’ll never forget,” Smith told Kickin’ the Tires. “I remember the phone call I got from Brad (Keselowski) in 2022 asking if I wanted to make my first Cup start. That’s something you kind of dream about hearing all your life growing up racing. I was super fortunate for that kind of respect from Brad, Jack Roush and everyone at RFK (Racing). I remember it went from going into a normal weekend of racing the truck to a complete thrash of getting ready.”

Smith was called on by RFK Racing’s Keselowski to take over driving duties for the No. 17 while Chris Buescher recovered from COVID-19. This came two days before his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race, which preparation was well underway for, leaving around 24 hours for the Huntington Beach, California driver to get ready for his Cup debut.

With little time to spare, Smith remembers getting fitted for his first Cup race inside Buescher’s massacred Ford Mustang from the week prior in the Coca-Cola 600 – the one that barrel-rolled about eight times down the frontstretch – because the primary car was already loaded up for the track. 

The then 22-year-old jumped into what was a radically new car at the time and qualified 32nd. Not only did Smith finish 17th on the lead lap at Gateway, he also outperformed Keselowski, who finished 20th.

Following an impressive debut, Smith notably caught the eye of his future crew chief Stephen Doran while he was working as a lead engineer on Kevin Harvick’s team.

“I can remember thinking and actually talking to Rodney (Childers) riding home from the race, like, ‘Man, that was really impressive to jump in that car with essentially no prep time,’” Doran told Kickin’ the Tires. “It opened my eyes to what potential was there with Zane. It’s a tough race and it’s a tricky track. That’s also what was pretty crazy about him running that well in his first race.”

Doran has been working in NASCAR since 2006, but just ended a 10-year tenure on the No. 4 team at Stewart-Haas Racing to join Spire and have the opportunity to be a full-time crew chief in the Cup Series.

In two trips to Gateway, Doran saw decent success in helping guide Harvick to a top-10 last year, after a blown brake rotor derailed their day in the inaugural Cup race at the 1.25-mile track.

Having worked as a rookie crew chief with a rookie driver for 14 races, Doran understands the importance of seat time in the seventh-generation car – especially with limited practice. He’s hopeful his experience blended with Smith’s at Gateway could lead to more comfort.

“I think [a return] brings, hopefully, a comfort level for him at a track where he has laps, and has a good feel for what he needs,” Doran said. “It’s good to get to a place where Zane has raced, had a good race in a Cup car, and knows what he wants to feel at a track. I personally have had pretty good success the last two years with Kevin at Gateway, so I feel like maybe we can combine some of that, get him a feel that he likes, and hopefully have a good weekend.”

In addition to his 17th-place finish in Cup, Smith also has five Truck Series races under his belt at Gateway. The only issue is that, while he may have had a slight advantage in 2022 with a new car for everyone and track most drivers hadn’t been to, they will pretty much all have an extra race there in the Next Gen car.

“I think it always helps, just the past experience you’ve had,” Smith said. “I remember some from Gateway in 2022 about the car handling wise and whatnot. We should benefit from it, but then again, the whole field got to race there last year. I mean, it’s still the Cup Series. It’s still tough, but yeah, I definitely should be comfortable unloading right away.”

Ultimately, Smith’s run at Gateway – in addition to winning the Truck Series championship later that year – helped him secure more Cup opportunities with Front Row Motorsports and his current situation driving for Spire, with the expectation to compete for Trackhouse Racing in 2025.

In Doran’s time spent at SHR, he won a championship, maintained competitive relevance and got to learn under one of the brightest minds in the garage in Childers.

Working closely with Childers, he learned how to manage a winning team as a crew chief. He believed his most striking qualities were his meticulous attention to detail and calm composure – a trait Doran prides himself on adopting. 

What makes this such a great pairing is Doran’s admiration and acknowledgement of Smith’s same demeanor at such a young age. For a driver and crew chief working through their respective rookie seasons, which has been a struggle, the ability for both to keep a level head is paramount.

“I appreciate him staying level and not getting super frustrated,” Doran said. “I think that’ll help us in the long run. He’s been great to work with, the guys love him, he comes into the shop all the time. The whole group feels like a family. With the struggles we’ve had, if it wasn’t that way, it would be way more difficult than it is now.”

Smith echoed the same sentiments, while providing some personal perspective.

“I mean, this is definitely a character-building year in going through a lot of adversity, but I think that’s how you need to approach things,” Smith said. “We’re just two calm guys that are trying to work for the same thing. That’s our focus and I’m glad it’s that way.”

“For me, I just kind of compare it to situations that I’ve been in throughout my career. I feel like, in my limited amount of years, I’ve experienced so much not knowing what was next. That’s real adversity there. Just continue to work hard, focus forward on new weeks and it’s just one race at a time.”

Before Smith was a Truck Series champion and full-time Cup racer, he was lighting it up in the developmental ranks. Eight top-10s in 12 limited NASCAR Xfinity Series starts, multiple Truck Series wins and two series runner-ups, and yet, he struggled to lock down a relatively secure future until the end of 2022.

Smith has always raced like each one could be his last, and it’s worked out great for him so far as one of NASCAR top young prospects. A sluggish start in Cup was expected with both he and Doran making their first full-time debuts, but you can’t keep two talents like this down for long.

“We’re just trying to really get our year turned around, better our race cars every week and hopefully try to find some things that we hit on and could grow from,” Smith said. “The main goal is to have just a good run and a solid day. No mistakes and hopefully get a good finish out of it, so we can get some momentum behind us and go on a run.”

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