NASCAR: Rain postpones Trucks qualifying at Pocono

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Jul. 23—LONG POND — Zane Smith called it probably the easiest pole he ever won.

A heavy downpour passed through Pocono Raceway on Friday afternoon and washed out practice and qualifying for the NASCAR Trucks Series CRC Brakleen 150.

As a result, the starting lineup for Saturday's race was set by the rule book. That puts Smith, the series points leader, on the pole in the No. 38 Ford.

Chandler Smith will start alongside him on the front row in the No. 18 Toyota. Carson Hocevar and Stewart Friesen make up Row 2 and Christian Eckes rounds out the top five.

"I honestly wish we could have had practice and qualified the right way, especially because this is a brand new truck for us," Smith said. "That definitely is the only downfall there. But excited for tomorrow. Obviously I'll have the best seat."

The unknown of a new truck is tempered by the fact that Smith has had success at Pocono. In four ARCA Series starts at the 2.5-mile track, he has four top-four finishes, including a win in July 2018. In the Truck Series, he placed 14th in 2020 and eighth in 2021.

"This truck we brought this weekend is supposed to be the best we've got, so I'm not so worried about the speed factor," Smith said. "I just hope all the heights are right, so we'll find out very soon. That's the only thing you're kind of skeptical about. Obviously I have simulator time and I'm pretty familiar with Pocono. So as long as they didn't add another turn, I should be all right."

Through 15 races this season, Smith has three wins — the season opener at Daytona; Austin, Texas, in March; and Kansas in May — nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. He has 584 points, 58 more than Chandler Smith and John Hunter Nemechek, who are tied for second place. He needs only two points to secure the regular-season championship.

Saturday's race at Pocono is the regular-season finale before the playoffs begin over the final seven races.

"I'm super excited to get the playoffs started. I have been since Daytona," Smith said. "I'm really happy with where we are in this regular-season championship points-wise. Super comfortable, especially coming to a place like this. I think if I finish 35th or better, then the 4 (Nemechek) and the 18 (Chandler Smith) have to win both stages and the race. You never say never in racing, but that's a tall task for sure."

Smith rides some momentum into Pocono. In the last four races, he has three second-place finishes (Sonoma, Nashville, Mid-Ohio) and one third (Nashville).

The stretch came after he made his Cup Series debut at Gateway. Filling in for Chris Buescher, who tested positive for COVID, Smith finished 17th in the No. 17 Ford.

"That was just a huge opportunity," Smith said. "I feel like I'm a way better driver from what I learned in that one race. It taught me a lot in the areas where you need to be good, the little things. Those little things equal race wins. Since then, I feel like I've been more consistent. Putting together these last four weeks has helped put me in position points-wise for the regular season."

Each of the past two seasons, Smith made the Championship Four in the final race at Phoenix. Each time he finished second. He was five points behind Sheldon Creed in 2020 and two points shy of Ben Rhodes in 2021.

Those close calls serve as a source of motivation this season.

"I don't know if there's a whole lot I can do differently other than obviously finish one spot better," Smith said.

"I feel like it's so weird to win a championship now. It's so hard to get to the Final Four, it's almost a championship in itself. Then it's whoever is the best that day. The vibe is really weird. Even when you feel pretty comfortable points-wise, you're never safe. So hopefully we can close out this regular-season championship tomorrow, help our odds, have some solid momentum for the playoffs and give it another shot. Hopefully, the third time will be a charm."

Two of the 10 playoff berths have yet to be clinched. They are currently occupied based on points by Grant Enfinger and Matt Crafton. Enfinger is 47 points above the cutoff line and Crafton is 19 points ahead of Derek Kraus for the final spot.

Kraus starts seventh, Enfinger eighth and Crafton 13th.

Nemechek, the defending race champion, starts 12th.

Todd Bodine, who is making his milestone 800th career start across all three NASCAR national series, will do it from the 34th spot.

The CRC Brakleen 150 is scheduled for Saturday at noon.

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