Zane Smith sat atop the pit box for JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet during last Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta when his phone started “blowing up.”
The gist of the messages barraging the 19-year-old who was a week away from making his Xfinity Series debut?
“Hey, Jimmie Johnson just gave you a huge shout out.”
The seven-time Cup champion was serving as an analyst on Fox Sports 1’s broadcast and had brought up Smith. The mention meant a lot to Smith, who “always looked up” to Johnson, a fellow California native.
“It’s kind of hard not to look up to him,” Smith told NBC Sports. “We kind of come from the same backgrounds. Our dads worked in off-road racing and come from nothing. I always have weird Déjà vu with him. I say that a lot, but it trips me out all the time. If I can be half the dude he can be I’ll be happy. ”
The New Guy
Of the six drivers slated to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet this year in the Xfinity Series, Smith is not like the others.
Smith, a member of the 2018-19 NASCAR Next class, has only one Gander Outdoor Truck Series start and will make his Xfinity debut today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A winner of four Menards ARCA Series races, Smith said he entered this weekend “super focused.”
“I was actually just talking to my dad (Mike) about it,” Smith said. “It’s crazy how we’ve gotten this far and really everyone that’s got me to this point.”
A native of Huntington Beach, California, Smith has competed since he was a 3-year-old riding a BMX bike.
After making the switch go karts, he steadily moved up the ranks, racing in Legends cars, Super Late Models and ARCA before making his only Truck Series start last June at Gateway Motorsports Park. He finished fifth for DGR-Crosley.
“We won’t move up until I win everything you kind of can. Or if you don’t win, you put yourself in contention to,” Smith said.
So why move to Xfinity after just one impressive Truck Series start?
“In my opinion, and a lot of people will kind of tell you as well, is that the Truck Series can kind of teach you bad habits,” Smith said. “I’ve kind of watched that from a lot of people. I feel like the Truck Series is kind of on its own. They just drive different from the rest. I totally agree if you have the money or the backing to go do a full year of trucks, absolutely I would first. But with my situation I can’t do that.”
Smith’s situation is a group of dedicated investors who have backed him since his go-kart days.
“It’s more than just slapping your logo on a side of a car,” Smith said. “They’re trying to get me to the top-level (Cup) and then I pay them back.”
The major investors in the group consist of Roy Debhan of ProAm Racing, Tim Casey of La Paz Margarita Mix and La Paz Racing and former Truck Series team owner Jimmy Smith.
He’s also received support from the Herbst family, which operates Herbst Smith Fabrication and whose Terrible Herbst Motorsports odd-road team his father manages.
“We had to figure out how to get to the race track when I was in go karts when a race weekend would cost a couple grand,” said Smith. “Now it’s a couple hundred. It’s tough getting to the race track and a lot of fans I think needed to be educated on that no matter who you are you’re going to have to pay.”
After a 2018 season where Smith finished second in the ARCA point standings, Smith landed at JR Motorsports for a tentative eight-race schedule after a deal with GMS Racing failed to come together.
After Las Vegas, he’s set to compete at Bristol Motor Speedway (April 6), Richmond Raceway (April 12 and Sept. 20), Dover International Speedway (May 4 and Oct. 5) and Iowa Speedway (June 16 and July 27).
Smith got his feet wet on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 during the Las Vegas test. While the focus of the test was on the Cup Series and its new rules package, Smith was among four Xfinity rookies who took part.
Smith said he was the fastest of the Xfinity drivers.
“I felt super comfortable in it,” Smith said. “In my opinion, if you’re good enough to run with these guys you should be able to hop in anything and be fast in it.”
“He’s like the nicest person you’ll meet off the race track and he’s a badass on the track,” Smith said. “He’s kind of confusing honestly. I don’t know how to explain it. Really, whatever you need to ask him, he’s going to answer it for you. Definitely seems like one of the best teammates you’ll ever have.”
Saturday will see Smith will get to show off all he’s picked up from his teammates in the last month.
Roughly 70 family members, friends and investors in his racing future will be in attendance.
“I’ve got zero expectations,” Smith said. “Just to make the most out of it.”