With the three drivers in front of him opting to pit just before an overtime restart, Ben Rhodes chose to stay on track in the fourth position and held off rookie Derek Kraus, winning Sunday’s South Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Darlington Raceway.
It was the third NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win of the 23-year-old Kentucky native’s career; the first since 2018. He is the seventh different winner of 2020.
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“Gosh, that was such a tough win,” Rhodes said. “We weren’t the best truck all day. I was actually really disappointed when the (final) caution flag came out because I thought fourth place is a good finish for us, we’ll get in the playoffs.
“But I’m not letting this checkered flag go,” he said grinning at the turn of events. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Kraus, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Tuesday, finished .785-seconds behind Rhodes to record his career-best finish and bring the rookie to within 10 points of the playoff cutoff line with one race remaining to set the 10-driver playoff field.
The season championship points leader Austin Hill finished third, followed by Grant Enfinger and rookie Christian Eckes. Another rookie, Raphael Lessard, finished sixth. Todd Gilliland, Stewart Friesen, Timmy Hill and Brett Moffitt rounded out the top 10.
Sunday’s victory for Rhodes, driver of the No.99 ThorSport Racing Ford, stopped a four-race winning streak by the GMS Racing team. But it took a pit-stop gamble and a determined pass in the last laps to do so.
For much of the race, it looked like the trophy would be decided by GMS teammates Moffitt and Sheldon Creed, who combined to lead 146 of the 152 total laps. Moffitt, a former series champion, won Stage 1 and Creed earned the Stage 2 victory, his series-best fifth stage win of 2020.
Creed, who led a race-best 82 laps, was leading when a caution came out with two laps remaining in regulation. Creed, Hill and Moffitt — who were running 1-2-3 at the time of the yellow flag, all pitted for tires. Rhodes, who was fourth at the time, and Kraus, were among 11 drivers who stayed out.
Any chance of a challenge for the win ended for Creed, however, when he was issued a pit road speeding penalty — too fast entering pit road — on the stop. He finished 18th, but the three-race winner remained upbeat after the race.
“If more would have come (to pit road) it would have helped out situation,” Creed said. “Man, that one hurts. Capitalized on that (next to) last restart and got to the lead and I knew if I was to the lead I was really good for 15-20 laps. And I feel like track position was really important.
“Just so much fun today. This place is so cool. The Jimmie Johnson throwback (paint scheme), it was really fun racing my teammate for the lead and quite a few times on restarts. Such a good job by my guys.”
Kraus’s runner-up showing was important as he’s involved in a three-way challenge for the final two playoff positions. Tyler Ankrum, who finished 11th, is ninth in the standings, now 14 points ahead of Kraus.
“(Crew chief) Kevin (Bellicourt) up on top of the box made a really good call at the end and I got a good restart and did everything I needed to do, and off of (Turn) 2 got really loose,” Kraus said of being passed by Rhodes.
“You’ve got to be aggressive to make the top 10 and the playoffs,” Kraus added of his door-to-door racing with Gilliland throughout the day.
Gilliland’s seventh-place run keeps him 10 points ahead of Kraus as the series moves to Richmond Raceway for Thursday’s regular-season finale, the ToyotaCare 250 (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Notes: There were no major issues in post-race inspection in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series garage. The No. 19 truck of second-place finisher Kraus had one lug nut not safe and secure, which usually results in a fine for the crew chief.