Zane Smith executed a well-timed pit strategy followed by a late caution period to cycle to the lead and motor away in the final stage to win the third annual running of the XPEL 225 at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday, March 25.
The reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Smith from Huntington Beach, California, led two times for a race-high 16 of 42-scheduled laps as he spent the majority of the event running towards the front and jostling for the lead with a host of front-runners, among which included Kyle Busch.
The key moment for Smith occurred at the conclusion of the second stage, which was won by Busch, when the Californian pitted under green for four fresh tires and fuel. Once the caution flew immediately afterward due to Parker Kligerman’s mechanical issue, a host of names led by Busch pitted and surrendered track position, which enabled Smith to cycle to the lead.
Then during a 13-lap dash to the finish, Smith was able to retain the lead and capture the victory from Busch who was trying to cycle his way back to the front from starting 16th but ran out of time as he was unable to narrow the deficit.
With on-track qualifying that determined the starting lineup occurring on Friday, Ross Chastain secured the pole position for the main event after posting a pole-winning lap at 91.877 mph in 133.613 seconds. Joining him on the front row was Kyle Busch, who posted the second-best qualifying lap at 91.490 mph in 134.178 seconds.
Prior to the event, names that included Daniel Dye, Kris Wright, Matt Crafton, Parker Kligerman, Matt DiBenedetto, Kaden Honeycutt, Taylor Gray, Bret Holmes, Colin Garrett, Chase Purdy and Spencer Boyd (driver change) dropped to the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments made to their respective entries.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Chastain jumped ahead with an early advantage approaching the uphill climb towards the first turn as the field fanned out. As the field approached a series of left and right-hand turns from Turns 2 to 9, Chastain remained ahead of Kyle Busch with Christian Eckes and Ty Majeski battling for third. With rookie Bret Holmes spinning behind in the field, the event remained under green flag conditions as the leaders approached Turns 10 and 11 before entering a long straightaway to Turn 12.
Towards the rear of the field, however, early troubles ignited for open-wheel competitor Ed Jones, who fell off the pace in Turn 8 with a flat left-rear tire and a potential broken rear suspension to his No. 20 Little Caesars Chevrolet Silverado RST. As the event remained under green, Chastain navigated his way through the next round of left and right-hand turns from Turns 12 to 19 before entering the final turn in Turn 20 and returning to the frontstretch as he led the first lap in front of Kyle Busch, Eckes, Majeski and Zane Smith. Not long after, the first caution of the event flew when Ed Jones pulled his truck off the course in Turn 13 with a flat tire and retired. During the caution period, names like Kris Wright, Colin Garrett, Jake Garcia, Spencer Boyd, Holmes and Jones pitted while the rest led by Chastain remained on the track.
When the event proceeded under green on the third lap in Austin, the field fanned out as wide as five lanes entering the first turn with Eckes igniting his charge for the lead, which he succeeded over Chastain and Kyle Busch. Following Turns 2 to 10, however, Chastain drew his No. 41 Worldwide Express Chevrolet Silverado RST beneath Eckes’ No. 19 NAPA Chevrolet Silverado RST in Turn 11 as both engaged for the lead while Zane Smith, Kyle Busch and Hocevar battled for third. Then entering Turn 12, Chastain cleared Eckes to reassume the lead as the field behind continued to jostle for positions.
Through the first five scheduled laps, Chastain was leading by more than a second over Eckes followed by Zane Smith, Kyle Busch and Carson Hocevar while Majeski, Kaz Grala, rookie Nick Sanchez, Corey Heim and Tyler Ankrum were in the top 10. By then, Tanner Gray was in 11th ahead of Ben Rhodes, Grant Enfinger, Logan Bearden and Lawless Alan while Matt DiBenedetto, Matt Crafton, Hailie Deegan, Parker Kligerman and Stewart Friesen occupied the top 20. Meanwhile, rookie Rajah Caruth was assessed a pass-through penalty for cutting the course.
Not long after, Deegan pitted under green as scheduled while running in the top 20 while driver Dale Quarterley was penalized for cutting the corner. Back at the front, Chastain continued to lead by more than a second over Eckes as Zane Smith, Kyle Busch and Hocevar were in the top five.
Then on the seventh lap, the caution returned when Hocevar, who was running towards the top 10, got loose due to brake pressure issues and spun as he got his No. 42 Worldwide Express Chevrolet Silverado RST stuck in the gravel trap in Turn 11. Hocevar’s incident occurred as Kris Wright also spun toward the midfield. During the caution period, a host of names led by Zane Smith, Busch and Chastain pitted while the rest led by Eckes remained on the track. During the caution period, Logan Bearden was penalized for speeding on pit road.
During the following restart on the 10th lap, the field fanned out entering the first turn as Eckes pulled ahead with the lead while Sanchez and Majeski battled for second. Entering the second turn, contact from Majeski got Sanchez loose as he lost a handful of spots while Eckes pulled away through the first round of left and right turns. Behind, trouble ignited for Crafton as he spun in Turn 4 and got his No. 88 Menards Ford F-150 stuck in the gravel trap. With the event proceeding under green, Eckes retained the lead in front of Majeski while Grala moved up to third in front of teammate Heim, Tyler Ankrum and Ben Rhodes.
At the conclusion of the first stage on Lap 12, Eckes, winner of last weekend’s event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, captured his third stage victory of the 2023 Truck season with Majeski, Corey Heim, Grala, Kyle Busch, Chastain, Tyler Ankrum, Zane Smith, Rhodes and Matt DiBenedetto scored in the top 10. Compared to the first three events on the schedule, the caution flag did not display and the competitors proceeded under green as part of NASCAR’s new rules for this season, which highlighted that no caution periods would be mandated at the conclusion of stage breaks on road course venues that hold Cup Series events.
As the event remained under green with the start of the second stage, a host of names that included Chastain, Kyle Busch and Zane Smith pitted under green. Eckes would pit under green during the following lap as Majeski assumed the lead. During the 14th lap, Kyle Busch, who managed to pass Chastain following the pit stops, overtook Majeski to assume the lead while Chastain followed through for second. Not long after, Colby Howard was penalized for cutting the course while Heim and DiBenedetto pitted under green.
As the event surpassed the Lap 20 mark, names that included Sanchez, Eckes, Majeski, Rhodes and Grala pitted under green, with Eckes dealing with a potential mechanical issue to his truck and knocking himself out of contention for a second consecutive win. By then, Chastain was leading ahead of Kyle Busch. Chastain would then pit on Lap 22 in light of a fuel pressure issue for the Floridian while Busch cycled his No. 51 Zariz Transport Chevrolet Silverado RST into the lead.
When the second stage concluded on Lap 26 and the event surpassed its halfway mark, Kyle Busch captured the stage victory. Zane Smith, who pitted to cap off the second stage, was scored second followed by Lawless Alan, Stewart Friesen, Parker Kligerman, Hailie Deegan, Chastain, Kaden Honeycutt, Rhodes and Nick Sanchez. Not long after, the caution returned when Kligerman, who was off the pace through the frontstretch, came to a stop towards the frontstretch’s uphill venue with smoke billowing out of his No. 75 Food Country USA Chevrolet Silverado RST. By then, names like Chase Purdy, Majeski, Tanner Gray and Ankrum had also pitted along with Zane Smith. In the midst of the pit stops and prior to Kligerman’s issues, Hailie Deegan and Kaden Honeycutt made contact entering Turn 19, which resulted in both spinning off the track.
During the caution period, some led by Kyle Busch, who opted to remain on the track during the second stage’s conclusion instead of pitting per crew chief Brian Pattie’s orders, pitted while the rest that included Zane Smith, Rhodes, Taylor Gray, Grala, Rajah Caruth, Majeski, Tanner Gray, Ankrum and Chase Purdy remained on the track.
With 13 laps remaining, the event restarted under green as Zane Smith and Rhodes occupied the front row. At the start, Zane Smith maintained the lead in front of Rhodes as the field fanned out and scrambled for late positions. As the field continued to navigate through the series of turns, Logan Bearden spun in Turn 15, but the field remained under green while Kyle Busch commenced his charge to the front on fresh tires.
Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Zane Smith was leading by more than three seconds over Rhodes while third-place Kyle Busch, who continued to his charge to the front, was trailing by more than six seconds. Majeski and Grala were in the top five while Caruth, Taylor Gray, Ankrum, Tanner Gray and Heim occupied the top 10 with 29 of 36 starters scored on the lead lap.
Four laps later, Kyle Busch overtook Rhodes for the runner-up spot. Busch, however, found himself trailing the leader Zane Smith by more than six seconds. As the laps continued to dwindle and the battles around the circuit continued, Busch could only get the gap between himself and Zane Smith down to four and five seconds, but he could not get closer to Smith’s No. 38 Speedco Ford F-150 as the Californian continued to lead.
When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Zane Smith remained as the leader by more than five seconds over Kyle Busch and by more than seven seconds over third-place Rhodes. With clean air in front of him and a clear advantage with no challenges lurking behind, Smith was able to navigate his way through the 20-turn circuit for a final time before cycling back to the frontstretch and claiming his second consecutive checkered flag in Austin.
With the victory, Smith became the first repeat winner of this year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season and notched his ninth series career victory. Smith’s win also marked the third consecutive victory for Front Row Motorsports No. 38 entry, which remains the only team to win every Truck event at Circuit of the Americas.
“Besides catching on fire in Victory Lane, that’s a first for me,” Smith, whose truck caught on fire while performing his burnout on the frontstretch, said on FS1. “Man, that’s a bummer right there, but man, just a shoutout to everyone at Team [Front Row Motorsports], [crew chief] Chris Lawson for that amazing strategy right there. That worked out for us good with that caution, advancing us in front of [Chastain]. Shoutout to my pit crew, man. They’ve been awesome all this year. It’s been so awesome having them and then, the strategy, putting Kyle [Busch] back there and us starting on the front row was just so perfect. The Speedco F-150 was fast there when it mattered. I just enjoy so much coming to all the road courses, especially here. It’s so cool [that Front Row Motorsports] is undefeated here. Just a true testament to this team. That was probably the most hectic Victory Lane celebration I’ve ever had.”
Kyle Busch, who was seeking the 100th Truck career victory for his organization, settled in second place and five seconds behind Smith while Majeski, Ankrum and Chastain finished in the top five.
“We were playing the long game and unfortunately, the long game didn’t work,” Busch said. “[Smith] got lucky today and beat us.”
Heim, Sanchez, Tanner Gray and Grala finished sixth through ninth while Rhodes, who had a drive shaft issue and had fallen off the pace approaching the finish line, ended up in 10th.
There were nine lead changes for five different leaders. The race featured three cautions for five laps. In total, 28 of 36 starters finished on the lead lap.
Following the fourth event of the 2023 Craftsman Truck Series season, Zane Smith leads the regular-season standings by two points over Ty Majeski, 18 over Ben Rhodes, 20 over Christian Eckes, 37 over Grant Enfinger and 38 over Matt Crafton.
1. Zane Smith, 16 laps led
2. Kyle Busch, 12 laps led, Stage 2 winner
3. Ty Majeski, one lap led
4. Tyler Ankrum
5. Ross Chastain, 10 laps led
6. Corey Heim
7. Nick Sanchez
8. Tanner Gray
9. Kaz Grala
10. Ben Rhodes
11. Taylor Gray
12. Grant Enfinger
13. Rajah Caruth
14. Stewart Friesen
15. Kaden Honeycutt
16. Hailie Deegan
17. Lawless Alan
18. Daniel Dye
19. Jake Garcia
20. Colin Garrett
21. Kris Wright
22. Logan Bearden
23. Bret Holmes
24. Colby Howard
25. Timmy Hill
26. Mason Filippi
27. Chase Purdy
28. Dale Quarterley
29. Matt DiBenedetto, one lap down
30. Christian Eckes – OUT, Suspension, three laps led, Stage 1 winner
31. Parker Kligerman – OUT, Electrical
32. Spencer Boyd – OUT, Electrical
33. Matt Crafton – OUT, Accident
34. Carson Hocevar – OUT, Axle
35. Dean Thompson – OUT, Accident
36. Ed Jones – OUT, Suspension
Next on the 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season is another Texas event as the series will travel north from Austin to Fort Worth to compete at Texas Motor Speedway. The event is scheduled to occur next Saturday, April 1, at 4:30 p.m. ET on FS1.