By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith’s chance of repeating is in jeopardy following the series’ Round of 8 opener at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In a 200-lap race that was dominated by Christian Eckes and won by Corey Heim, who punched his ticket to battle for the championship at Phoenix, Smith’s late-race woes could be the biggest story following the race. The California native felt he struggled the entire race, despite picking up 15 stage points, including a runner-up result in the second stage. 

“My truck was terrible in the second stage, but I had clean air,” Smith noted. “You just can‘t pass. It just sucks.”

After finishing fifth in the opening stage, Smith was one of four drivers not to pit at the stage break and grabbed the lead. The No. 38 Ford led 43 laps, but slipped in lapped traffic as the stage was winding down, allowing Eckes to get by  and sweep the first two stages.

“I had 100 laps on tires and almost won the stage somehow,” Smith said. “It is what it is.”

Smith needed to pit for fresh tires and fuel to make it to the end of the race. When he entered his pit box, the No. 38 truck was slightly outside of the confines, resulting in a pit-road penalty and having to restart at the rear of the field. 

In the final stage, Smith was lapped and could only manage a 24th-place finish, the worst of the playoff drivers. Of the other drivers who played the same strategy as the No. 38 truck, Nick Sanchez led the charge with a ninth-place finish. Carson Kvapil in his series debut finished 12th and Bayley Currey placed 13th, both of who also pitted at the conclusion of the second stage. 

Valuable points were lost for Smith. He’s fifth on the playoff grid now, 14 points below Grant Enfinger for the coveted fourth spot. With races at Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway remaining in this round, he’s hoping to make it through and battle for the championship at Phoenix for a fourth consecutive season. 

“I‘m not trying to be a negative nelly, but it‘s just an odd round for the final four,” Smith said. “This is exactly how this race was last year and then Talladega to get into the final four is a little odd. Who knows on that one? We‘ve won on superspeedways with [Front Row Motorsports], but it‘s anyone‘s battle. The only real place that‘s a true tell is Homestead.”

Both of Smith’s superspeedway wins came at Daytona International Speedway. He finished second at Homestead last season. 

“There‘s still a lot of racing,” he concluded.

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