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Truckin’ Thursdays: Zane Smith, Carson Hocevar Impressing in Upper-Series Starts

With the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series practically acting as step one towards making it toward the Cup Series, it’s not uncommon to see drivers make select starts in the Cup or Xfinity series to prepare them for what they will eventually be racing in.

However, the expectation when making those starts is usually to run all the laps and stay out of trouble. If a driver gets a top 10, it’s just exceeding expectations.

For Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar, they have crushed those expectations in their starts.

Front Row Motorsports announced earlier this season that Smith would drive seven races in the Cup Series. He was originally announced for just the Daytona 500, driving a third car, the No. 36, but FRM added six races in the No. 38, originally occupied by Todd Gilliland.

Gilliland has a five-race schedule with Rick Ware Racing (with whom Smith drove an unscheduled eighth race at Martinsville Speedway following Cody Ware‘s arrest) and drove the No. 36 at Talladega Superspeedway in April to fill out the full schedule. A tough situation for sure, and the move would have looked just as bad if Smith couldn’t perform.

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However, the defending Truck Series champion is proving that he can hang with the big boys. He finished a solid 13th in the Daytona 500. However, a 31st-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a 34th at Martinsville, and a 37th at Talladega saw people beginning to question FRM’s move even more.

But at the Coca-Cola 600 on Monday (May 29) Smith worked his way into the top 15 and stayed there most of the night. He stayed out while others pitted under caution and assumed the lead for a few laps before falling back. He finished a career-best 10th and quieted those who were skeptical.

This isn’t all too surprising, as Smith turned a few heads in his debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway after he was tabbed to fill in for Chris Buescher in RFK Racing’s No. 17 after Buescher tested positive for COVID-19. He completed all the laps and finished 17th.

Hocevar, on the other hand, has driven the last few Truck seasons full-time with Niece Motorsports. After several runner-ups, he finally got career win number one earlier this season after a last lap accident among the leaders, including Smith, projected him from fourth to first.

In March, Spire Motorsports announced it will field an Xfinity team for Hocevar for six races in 2023. He also made a start at Circuit of the Americas for SS Green Light Racing, finishing 38th. Spire withdrew the entry from Dover Motor Speedway, as threatening weather meant that if qualifying was canceled, Hocevar would not make the race.

Instead, Hocevar’s first race with the team was at Darlington Raceway. Not the most ideal track to make your second career start in a series at. But Hocevar was the surprise of the race, running top 10 most of the race and finishing a stellar sixth.

He also ran the 72 Hours of Charlotte — sorry, the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway that was postponed from Saturday to Monday, then pushed from before the Cup race to afterward when rain fell as stage one concluded.

Hocevar proved that Darlington wasn’t just beginner’s luck — he ran in the top five, getting a high as fourth late in the race. He finished eighth, but it could have been higher if the fuel mileage didn’t work out for some of the drivers in front of him.

And now, the Spire connection is giving Hocevar the opportunity of a lifetime. When Chase Elliott was suspended for wrecking Denny Hamlin in the Coke 600, Corey LaJoie was announced as the replacement driver for the No. 9 for World Wide Technology Raceway.

Filling Lajoie’s No. 7? Hocevar.

One year after breaking his ankle at the same track, he will make his Cup Series debut.

It seems right now, that as far as advancement out of the Truck Series for 2024, Smith and Hocevar seem to be the drivers to watch. Likely, Smith might advance straight to the Cup Series, perhaps replacing Gilliland.

Hocevar, on the other hand, may have a tougher time. Spire’s Xfinity team was created solely for him, so it may not be able to support a full-time effort for him.

However, with increasing rumors and reports of Josh Berry joining Stewart-Haas Racing, it could be possible that Hocevar, a former Drivers Edge Development driver, could join Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team, taking the No. 8 for 2024.

That being said, both drivers should be treating each upper-level start as an audition still, because plans can change and anything could happen. But it’s highly likely that Smith and Hocevar will not be competing full-time in the Truck Series when 2024 rolls around.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. 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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Dawg

Hocevar ran the Chili Bowl this year, mostly under the radar. Here’s hoping he comes back.

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