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Tracking the Trucks: Zane Smith, Front Row Motorsports Continue COTA Dominance

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If you want to win a Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas, you’re going to have to go through Front Row Motorsports.

Zane Smith won his second straight race at the Austin, Texas, racetrack on March 25 and FRM won its third straight COTA race (Todd Gilliland won the inaugural race for the team in 2021). No other Truck Series team has been able to win at COTA, though Kyle Busch looked like he had it in the bag until a poorly timed caution at the end of stage two put him behind Smith, who led the most laps (16) en route to the win.

Busch still managed to finish second. Ty Majeski finished third, followed by Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain in fourth and fifth, respectively. Ben Rhodes was on track to finish third until he completely lost his drivetrain in the final corner and coasted up the hill to finish 10th.

Top Storylines of the Race

  • Taylor Gray made his season debut and began his rookie campaign in the TRICON Garage No. 17 after missing the first three races of the season due to being under 18. Luckily, March 25 is his birthday, so it was very fitting to make his season debut the very day he becomes eligible to run the bigger tracks.
  • An interesting qualifying event saw two odd circumstances occur. Travel issues for Spencer Boyd resulted in him not arriving at the track in time, so Stefan Parsons stepped behind the wheel of Boyd’s No. 12 for qualifying. Boyd started at the rear and failed to finish the event in 32nd. Along with this came a surprising failure to qualify for Spire Motorsports and Alex Bowman after his No. 7 had a tire failure on-track and did not post a time.
  • IndyCar Series veteran Ed Jones made his NASCAR debut, driving Young’s Motorsports’ No. 20, but his day was over two turns in as a broken trackbar caused Jones to bring out the first caution of the day on lap 1. He finished 36th, dead last, failing to complete a lap.
  • Christian Eckes was able to build off his momentum from winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway by winning stage one, but power steering issues in stage two took him out of contention and left him 30th, eight laps down.
  • Chastain and Busch seemed to be the class of the field in stage one and two, but Chastain ran into fuel-pump issues right before the end of stage two and had a long pit stop to address the issue, leaving Busch to runaway with the stage two victory. Chastain managed to rebound nicely, moving up 23 spots from the final restart to finish fifth. While the day could have been better, it certainly could have been so much worse for the Melon Man.

Playoff Picture

Nobody new is locked into the playoffs, as Smith had already won at Daytona International Speedway to lock himself in, but points are beginning to spread a little more and a wild day at COTA didn’t help. With just 12 races left due to the short schedule of the series, there’s no room for error unless you win.

Eckes and Smith will look to continue to improve so they can both make deep runs in the playoffs. One stat that the competition doesn’t want to hear: Smith’s 2022 championship run began with wins at Daytona and COTA. He began his championship defense with … wins at Daytona and COTA. If trends tell any sort of tale, the competition is in trouble.

Although Smith should probably do burnouts that don’t involve catching the truck on fire if he wants to have fast trucks come playoff time.

Rookie Report

While Nick Sanchez was the highest-finishing rookie (seventh), Gray takes the title of Rookie of the Race because in his first start, he had great pace, was running as high as fourth at one point and managed to come home a respectable 11th. He even had a fun brotherly battle with his brother Tanner for a while before the latter managed to win the spot.

A shoutout goes to AM Racing’s Logan Bearden, who was running in the top 15 for most of the day before a spin in the final stage relegated the No. 22 to 22th.

No. 2 – Nick Sanchez (seventh)
No. 17 – Taylor Gray (11th)
No. 20 – Ed Jones (36th)
No. 22 – Logan Bearden (22nd)
No. 24 – Rajah Caruth (13th)
No. 30 – Colin Garrett (20th)
No. 32 – Bret Holmes (23rd)
No. 34 – Mason Filippi (26th)
No. 35 – Jake Garcia (19th)
No. 43 – Daniel Dye (18th)
No. 46 – Dale Quarterley (28th)

Author’s Note: As there are considerably more drivers on this list than the six Rookie of the Year contenders, it’s finally time to note that for 2023, this section of the article will classify rookies as drivers who have made less than 10 career Truck starts.

See also
Kyle Busch Burned by Caution, Ben Rhodes Breaks Driveshaft at Finish of COTA Truck Race

Paint Scheme of the Race

So many schemes stood out in the Austin sun, but Bearden’s No. 22 was just too good-looking to not give some love to.

One Thought About This Race

This race was the first race in seven years across any of NASCAR’s premier series where the stages did not end under caution. This left room for a LOT more strategy across the stages. Some drivers, like Rhodes, completed the race on just one stop. Others did it in two or three. And in typical road-course fashion, pitting before the caution was a key factor in the race and it came back to bite Busch.

Just a few laps before the stage end, Brian Pattie, Busch’s crew chief, called him to the pits, but Busch continued to stay out, which he’d later say was an attempt to see how long the tire life was so he could set up a strategy for the end of the race. As he crossed the line to win stage two, Smith dove for the pits. As this happened, Parker Kligerman’s No. 75 suffered from an electrical fire and brought out the caution.

Busch, having not pitted, had to restart 16th after pitting, while Smith perhaps was the luckiest of any driver and ended up with the lead on the final restart, and he would not relinquish it. Busch was able to battle to second, but for a driver like Busch, second was extremely disappointing.

That being said, NASCAR dug itself into a hole here. It understood that there was an issue with throwing the caution after a stage end on a road course, as a lot of the race was spent under caution. But this race proved the point of all the stage-racing naysayers – cautions don’t encourage the strategy we saw in the race. Therefore, fans might be clamoring for stage cautions to be removed permanently, especially if the rest of this weekend goes well without them.

If there were stage cautions for this race, it might be safe to say it’s Busch’s race to lose (I mean, it kind of was anyway). Perhaps Smith doesn’t get a chance to challenge Busch or maybe the pits being closed with two to go changes Smith’s strategy. It’s pretty safe to say the lack of stage cautions changed the complexity of this race, and fans, drivers and media alike have surely noticed it.

Does NASCAR want no stage cautions? It’s hard to say, but if it wants to keep stage cautions, this race certainly did it no favors.

Where to Next?

We’re staying in state.

The Truck Series will stay in the state of Texas and head up I-35 North to Texas Motor Speedway for a doubleheader weekend with the NTT IndyCar Series. Coverage for the SpeedyCash.com 250 will begin at 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 1. As always, race coverage will be on FOX Sports 1.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. He co-authors Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the site's primary Truck Series reporter and writer, and contributes to SRX coverage, too. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing his master of journalism at Temple University. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training outside of Frontstretch. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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