By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
For Zane Smith, a weight was lifted off his shoulders when he was able to hoist the 2022 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series trophy. After two consecutive seasons of finishing runner up in the driver standings, which once cast an uncertain future for the 23-year-old, the immediate outlook for the Ford Performance driver is bright following a dominant championship performance.
It was previously announced that Smith would attempt to qualify for his first Daytona 500, but a press release on February 7 offered more clarity for the California kid’s future and Front Row Motorsports in 2023.
Smith will pilot the No. 36 Ford Mustang and be sponsored by Centene Corporation, which features a combination of Ambetter Health and Wellcare as the primary sponsor for an additional five races on the No. 38 car, which will also be driven by the reigning Truck Series Champion.
“The people that win races stick around in this sport for a while,” Smith said. “The ones that are able to capture championships stick around a little bit longer.
“I expressed at the beginning of the year that I just wanted to race more and a few things were up in the air, but I knew that I wanted to go truck racing again next year and defend our title and, like I said, race as much as possible no matter what it’s in.”
Last year, Smith made his NASCAR Cup Series debut as a last-minute substitute for Chris Buescher at World Wide Technology Raceway, where he walked away with a 17th-place finish on the lead lap. This season, the 23-year-old will have more than enough time to prepare for his six-race schedule at the premier level.
While Smith feels completing a full race in the Next Gen car will give him a slight advantage over drivers hoping to qualify for the Daytona 500 like Austin Hill and Travis Pastrana. He believes it was more crucial in showcasing what areas he needs to improve upon before locking down a full-time Cup ride.
“Everyone in the Cup Series is good at everything,” Smith said. “You can mess up here and there and still get away with a thing or two in Trucks or Xfinity. On the Cup side, you have to be perfect … being perfect in all those small areas, whether it’s on pit road or certain things on restarts are huge and that’s the difference between first and 15th.
“These races that I have I hope I can learn as much as I can and improve on all these little things that I’ll look for.”
In a surprising turn of events, the part-time opportunity for Smith comes at Todd Gilliland’s expense. Instead of trying to charter three cars, or field a third open car, Smith will inherit the No. 38 car for five races, leaving the 2022 Rookie of the Year contender with a part-time sophomore season in Cup.
“As you guys have heard I won’t be full time in the 38 this year,” Gilliland tweeted after the announcement. “It was a shock when they told me and I’m disappointed. We’re working really hard to still be behind the wheel for the races I will be missing and plan on putting our best foot forward all season.”
As you guys have heard I won’t be full time in the 38 this year. It was a shock when they told me and I’m disappointed. We’re working really hard to still be behind the wheel for the races I will be missing and plan on putting our best foot forward all season.
— Todd Gilliland (@ToddGilliland_) February 7, 2023
In addition to the Daytona 500, Centene Corporation will serve as a primary sponsor for Smith and the No. 38 Ford Mustang at Phoenix Raceway (March 12), Talladega Superspeedway (April 23), Sonoma Raceway (June 11), Texas Motor Speedway (September 24) and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL (October 8).
Centene Corporation will also be an associate sponsor all season in Smith’s quest to become a back-to-back Truck Series Champion, as well as a primary at Homestead-Miami Speedway (October 21).
“I don’t want to say [there’s] less pressure because I feel like, if anything, it’s more pressure trying to defend this title,” Smith said. “I’m just ready to get racing. I feel like I’ve done so much talking about it and I’m just ready to get back going. Like I said, just with that championship being captured is a huge weight off my shoulders and I’m ready to get back going again and hopefully capturing some more wins.”
Smith will attempt to qualify for the 65th running of ‘The Great American Race’ beginning with single-car time trials on Wednesday, February 15 at 8:15 p.m. ET, then in the Bluegreen Vacation Duels the following day. In the meantime, he’ll be watching film and getting in contact with other drivers for advice before his first time in a Cup car at Daytona International Speedway.