Zane Smith was just one split-second decision away from winning the Snowball Derby in his first attempt Sunday afternoon at Five Flags Speedway.
While running second ahead of eventual winner Chase Elliott with two laps remaining, Smith exited turn four to see a huge puff of smoke ahead of him. The smoke was a result of John Hunter Nemechek's car, which was on fire at the entrance to pit road.
Instincts told Smith to check up as he approached the area, but when he did Elliott drove by him to take over the second position on the race track.
Following the race, Smith was upset enough about the loss of the runner-up spot, but his frustrations grew later on in the evening when initial race winner Christopher Bell was disqualified in post-race technical inspection. That moved him back into the runner-up spot, but left him wondering what could have been if he didn’t take his foot off of the gas pedal and make that split-second decision.
“We had second for a really long time, and the smoke down there I don’t know what you expect a driver to think when you see smoke,” Smith told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. I checked up and Chase went by me. I don’t know if we had anything for the win, maybe if I caught him a little bit earlier but I definitely had second on the race track.”
Smith’s performance Sunday in Pensacola, Florida serves as another breakout performance for the youngster from Huntington Beach, California. His initial breakout performance came in February when he entered the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing as a relatively unknown and captured the Super Late Model championship. Sunday’s second-place finish was the second year in a row that a Snowball rookie placed in the runner-up spot. Floridian Dalton Sargeant finished second to John Hunter Nemechek in 2014.
Still, Smith knows there’s nothing in pavement short track racing as big as the Snowball Derby and a runner-up finish in the race is bigger than a win in nearly any other race.
“Shocking,” said Smith when asked what it felt like to finish second in the Derby. “I never thought I’d be right here a year ago, especially starting from 19th, driving up through the top-five and leading a good bit of this.
“It’s definitely going to be there on my record for a while, but not as big as a win would. There’s always next year, so I’ll be back next year stronger than ever and hopefully put my name on the trophy.”
After starting from the 19th position, Smith drove through the field and made his way towards the top-10 early on. A caution on lap 67 of the race saw many of the leaders visit pit road, while Smith stayed on the track to gain track position. He took over the lead from Preston Peltier on lap 90 and went on to lead a total of 40 laps during the 300-lap race.
“In the beginning we started 19th and we went to start picking them off and the car was rotating really well,” Smith explained. “We had amazing drive off and that’s how we got them all. We got up to like third and then we led a lot of it. We did our first pit stop and we tried adjustments and went the wrong way. We took those adjustments out and it made it better again.”
From there, Smith made his way back to the front and put himself in a position to contend at the end of the race. After passing drivers like Elliott, Bubba Pollard and Dalton Sargeant, Smith put himself in the second position for the final 20-lap green flag run.
But that’s when he made a decision that will now stick with him for another 365 days until he gets another shot at the Tom Dawson trophy.
“These are the best guys out here and it’s my first one so I’m definitely happy with second. It’s just, man, if I didn’t break through that smoke it’d be a whole different story. It is what it is. Live and learn I guess.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com