After a three-month recess from racing, Zane Smith needed time to recover.
Behind the wheel of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet Silverado, the 20-year-old rookie battled his elders en route to his first podium finish in Tuesday night’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Once he climbed from his truck, Smith needed time to catch his breath.
“I was super aggressive on restarts and made a ton of track position doing it,” Smith said after the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race. “I got pretty lucky restarting at the top a majority of the restarts, and then when I got to the front row I was on the bottom. The bottom was the place to be if you were up front. That was my first time getting stage points. We ended up really good.
“I was so determined to get third. I was holding off Brett (Moffitt) as much as I could. He had five-to-10-lap fresher tires than me, I think. I got really tight with seven (laps) to go.”
Smith earned a race-high 46 points after finishing third in the first stage, seventh in Stage 2 and third at the checkers behind Cup regulars Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.
Although Elliott won the race, Smith, his GMS teammate, captured the attention of competitors past and present. Kyle Busch had a front row seat for the action.
“He was good, he was fast,” said the reigning NASCAR Cup champion and second-place finisher. “He made some bold moves and ran well and didn’t put himself in too bad of a spot.
“When he made the three-wide move down the backstretch and threw it into Turn 3, that was probably something I would do, and he did a good job holding on to that spot.”
During Smith’s exchange with Busch, Elliott and former truck champion Johnny Sauter, Smith looked more like a vested member of the truck fraternity than a driver making his fourth start on the tour.
“The battle between the 13 (Sauter), Chase and Kyle, that was a fun night because they’ll race you real hard, yet clean,” Smith said. “Never had a run, cause I would have used it.
“I raced the 51 (Busch) a lot harder than the 24 (Elliott). At least it looked that way, because, obviously, I knew there was money on the line. I was doing everything I could to help my teammate out and make a name for myself."
Last night, Smith earned a new fan—NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin, who tweeted: You have my attention @zanesmith77 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
Under the direction of crew chief Bono Manion, Smith was able to race his way from 30th to the lead by Lap 33 when the veteran pit boss opted to keep his driver on the track as the leaders came to pit following the first stage. Smith led 15 laps and maintained solid track position throughout the 134-lap contest.
The former ARCA driver has signed on for a full season with GMS. Though Smith hasn't raced at Atlanta Motor Speedway or Homestead-Miami Speedway—the next two scheduled truck races—Manion is looking forward to taking his driver to Pocono where, in four ARCA starts, Smith has one win and four top-five finishes.
“He’s the real deal,” Manion said. “Zane is very laid-back. He doesn't seem to have a care in the world, but he’s a very smart race car driver.”