MADISON, Ill.—Twenty-four hours after Zane Smith first received the call, it had not sunk in.
Brad Keselowski, a minority owner in Roush Fenway Keselowski, asked Smith to fill in the No. 17 Cup car at World Wide Technology Raceway after Chris Buescher was sidelined due to Covid. The Huntington Beach, Calif. racer, who turns 23 on Thursday, immediately accepted the offer.
And Smith has been “wide open” ever since.
“It's so weird,” Smith said. “I don't really know how to word it. I literally woke up this morning and said to myself, ‘Yeah, it wasn't a dream.’ Just crazy, crazy. I literally thought I was (just) running the truck race. At three o'clock yesterday everything changed.”
Almost a year ago, Smith’s world was upended. He had signed a contract to drive for Ganassi Racing, but Chip Ganassi ended up selling his NASCAR operation to Trackhouse Racing in June. Smith, who had first gained recognition driving a limited schedule in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports in 2019, appeared to be on the fast track before the sudden sale.
After two winning seasons in the Camping World Truck Series with GMS, and finishing second twice in the standings, Cup appeared the natural progression for the then 22-year-old who has never been afraid to put in the work to improve his craft.
When the Ganassi deal blew up—and with GMS changing course—Smith ended up at Front Row Motorsports. After the first 10 races of the 2022 season, the driver of the No. 38 Ford F-150 leads the tour with three wins and is currently third in points.
Smith leaned on Keselowski earlier for advice at Martinsville Speedway. He had always admired the veteran’s approach to the track. There had been complimentary tweets from Keselowski for Smith’s accomplishments—and then came the out-of-the-blue text on Thursday.
“I had gotten a text earlier in the day from Brad saying, ‘Hey, congrats on the wins, looking good.’ I think it was around those words,” Smith said. “Which is really cool, but you don't get that from guys in this garage. I didn't even think about it. I was like, ‘Oh that's cool.’
“And then later on I got a call from him.”
It’s not surprising that Keselowski would reach out to Smith. The third-generation racer with blue-collar roots had to work for everything he was given. His breakout moment came from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who noticed what Keselowski could accomplish in under-funded equipment. The 2012 Cup champion began paying it forward with Brad Keselowski Racing offering young drivers opportunities in the truck series.
From 2008 until 2017, Keselowski provided a stage for a variety of up-and-coming drivers including Ryan Blaney, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick. Now back in the ownership seat, Smith was on Keselowski’s radar. Keselowski says Smith, “does a lot of the little things right.”
“Obviously, with Chris being sick, we wanted to find the best prospect we could and give him a real shot,” Keselowski said. “And Zane Smith to me is just that, one of the best prospects in all of NASCAR right now. He certainly has earned his opportunities by winning races in the truck series and doing some great things.
“It’s a good opportunity to give him a chance. Hopefully, he’ll have a solid outing, something he can build on for his career. “We feel like he's got a lot of potential.”
For a driver making his NASCAR Cup debut attempting to balance his day job in trucks, attacking double-duty responsibilities was a challenge for Smith—but one he’s been preparing for his entire life.
“I'm really just in a lot of disbelief,” Smith said. “I'm not the type of guy like, ‘Oh man, I deserve this,’ you know. I truly don't belong here. We came from literally nothing and worked all my life to get here.
“It's about been taken from me multiple, multiple times. So to have this opportunity just means everything.”
On Friday, Smith practiced the Cup car, practiced the truck and then qualified second for the Toyota 200. Immediately after, he went to the Cup garage to debrief with the No. 17 Roush Fenway Keselowski crew then returned to his truck team to review for Saturday’s race.
“I was definitely a fish out of water for the first bit,” Smith said. “Just trying to learn really as much as I can. I'm definitely kind of on eggshells, especially how these cars drive. They're a lot different than anything I've ever driven before.
“I just don't really want to be that guy to go full send and tear up one of these cars. It's a great opportunity for me to learn a lot and that's my goal.”
With an early qualifying draw for the Enjoy Illinois 300, Smith qualified 32nd for his Cup debut. His boss had just one request—for Smith to bring the No. 17 Ford back in one piece. But Keselowski is confident he found the right candidate for the job.
“This is such a procedural-based sport whether you’re on pit road or other places, you have to get those things right,” Keselowski said. “Week in and week out, he seems to do that at a very high level with the maturity it takes to be at the next level.”