By Dustin Albino
Two laps to go to settle it all at Phoenix Raceway. Zane Smith just pitted under caution and will restart 11th on a green-white-checkered finish, with Championship 4 competitors Sheldon Creed the row ahead in ninth, as Brett Moffitt and Grant Enfinger make up the front row. Whoever finished first of those four drivers gets crowned the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion.
It was a restart for the ages where tires mattered, allowing Creed to go from ninth to the lead in one lap, though Smith was in close pursuit in third as the white flag waved. Unfortunately for the No. 21 team, Smith came up one position short of winning the big prize.
The Phoenix race capped off a stellar rookie campaign for Smith, piloting the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet. His rookie statistics included two victories, seven top-five (including three in a row to end the year) and 13 top-10 finishes. Not bad for someone whose racing future looked bleak two years prior, though finishing runner-up — again to Creed — in the ARCA Menards Series championship battle.
And, oh yeah, Smith had those strong outings at many tracks he’d never seen prior, making it that more impressive.
“It was hard to lineup there at the front with no practice,” Smith told Jayski on Monday. […] “I feel like that was the biggest challenge. But now that I’ve at least been to them, I know what to expect with my truck and knowing where to get my truck to get that right feel.”
Throughout the season, Smith was working with veteran crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion, five-time Cup series winner, including the 2010 Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray. Smith leaned on Manion’s experience and capability of setting up a race vehicle in order to be competitive throughout the year.
“We’re always very close to being on the same page and that’s a huge key in our sport,” Smith said. “I feel like a big thing with that is how Bono was very mellow, and that’s what I really like. I feel like that helped out last year, plus there’s a lot of pressure on everybody and lots of unknowns. When everyone can stay calm it’s a good thing. Everyone just needs to go do their own job.”
Competing for GMS means Smith is part of arguably the best team in the Truck Series. The team is the only repeat champion over the past five seasons, with Johnny Sauter clinching the title in 2016 and Creed just two months ago. Hell, last season alone GMS took up 40% of the playoff spots.
Even still, Smith was a tad surprised to be in the position he was in at the end of the year in his rookie year. But he credits his performance in the series’ return race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year following 13 weeks off, 10 coming via the sport shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was there where Smith made a bold three-wide move, passing both Sauter and all-time series win’s leader Kyle Busch. The No. 21 truck went on to finish third, boosting his confidence level.
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Smith said, “I feel like that was the turning point of my career when we ran up front with Chase [Elliott] and Kyle.”
In the 11th race of the season — 12th of his Truck career — Smith found victory lane for the first time at Michigan, in a thrilling overtime finish. Initially, the No. 21 truck got a mediocre restart from fifth, but with an incident on the front row taking out three of his competitors, he was able to pass Tanner Gray coming to the white flag for second, only to power by Christian Eckes on the final lap to earn the win.
Two races later, Smith led 50 laps at Dover en route to the victory. Reflecting back on his 2020 season, it was dreamlike for the 21-year-old.
“I knew I could make the playoffs, but to make it to the final four is going to be a hard thing to back up,” Smith added. “I don’t really care who you are, it’s really hard to make it to Phoenix and compete for a championship. Really when you get down there and you’re in that final four, it’s anybody’s game.”
With the Truck Series’ season opener just 17 days away, Smith is hopping on iRacing many times with other companions within the Chevrolet banner to reenact races at Daytona International Speedway. Sometimes, Smith’s spotter Josh Williams will also be present, preparing for what’s to come while also knocking the rust off.
Smith enters the 2021 season in a position he’s never been in prior: returning to the same team for a second full-time season. His 2021 mentality compared to this time last year is much different.
“I would say it’s decently pretty high,” Smith said of his confidence level entering the new race season. “I feel like by making the final four in my rookie year and getting a couple wins is a pretty good year as a rookie in any series, especially the Truck Series. The Truck deal is really hard right now; I feel like there’s about 15 trucks that are in a bubble and the trucks are so bad in dirty air, and to try and work around them is not an easy task.
“For what I know now, I think it might be a little more in my favor. I just know more now, that’s the biggest thing.”
Admittedly so, restarts are Smith’s biggest point of emphasis for the new season — a trait he believes he struggled at mightily last year. With dirty air playing a big factor in who runs at the front, honing in on that skill could play dividends throughout the duration of a run.
The 2021 driver lineup in Truck is stacked, too. John Hunter Nemechek is returning to the series after spending last year running the full Cup Series schedule, on top of most other drivers that were competitive last year coming back this season.
So does Smith consider himself the preseason championship favorite?
“I for sure look at myself as one, and am as motivated as ever to make it there,” he said. “You can’t really say you’re going to win the championship, you’ve got to hope you’re going to win the championship and you’re going to do everything in your power to.
“My teammates will be pretty good. Sheldon will be pretty good and I feel like John Hunter will be a good one and there’s always a couple from ThorSport as well. I feel like those are the biggest [competitors], but it’s not going to be an easy year by no means.”