Enfinger ‘rolling with the punches’ amidst demotion; Eckes, Rhodes hash things out

Longtime Camping World Truck Series powerhouse organization ThorSport Racing made headlines last month when it announced a decision to part ways with manufactuer Ford Performance just weeks before the start of the 2021 season.

The biggest jaw-dropper, however, came Thursday.

MORE: ThorSport returns to Toyota, adds Christian Eckes

In an announcement noting a return to a championship-winning partnership with Toyota Racing Development, ThorSport also unveiled its driver and crew chief lineup — featuring a ride-split between 2020 Championship 4 driver Grant Enfinger and former Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Christian Eckes.

The 36-year-old Enfinger, 2019 Regular Season champion and fourth-place points finisher a season ago, will cede seat time in his No. 98 Tundra to the 20-year-old TRD talent after he opens the season at Daytona International Speedway in the NextEra Energy 250 (Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Eckes will then take over for races on the Daytona Road Course and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before Enfinger hops back in at Atlanta Motor Speedway more than a month later.

“I definitely want to be (in) the seat any chance I get. …. It’s a little bit bittersweet, man, because it’s still a great situation,” Enfinger said Thursday via video conference. “Got a great team behind us and we’re very capable of winning races. I feel like being in the Toyota Racing family is going to help us out even more. Duke Thorson and ThorSport Racing have been so good to us over these four years, I’m looking forward to a new challenge at this point.

” … It is a demotion to be running part time but you know, it’s part of it. It’s part of rolling with the punches. This is the whole racing deal; it’s such a rollercoaster of emotions and I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. Just going to go into the year with an open mind and make the most of it.”

The four-time 2020 winner indicated many factors went into the decision, and he doesn’t “know exactly (what happened)” but is taking it all in stride, knowing he still has the opportunity to compete for wins and to earn another owner’s championship for ThorSport.

“There’s so much that’s in our control and so much that isn’t. … As much as this is a competition-based sport, it’s also a business. There’s a million different ways to put these deals together and to make them work, and this year it just happens to be part time. That’s what it is and that’s what it ended up being. Like I said, it’s not that I’m happy about it or anything like that but it’s still a great opportunity and how it all played out this year.”

The move to ThorSport marks a second chance with a championship-capable organization for Eckes after a departure from KBM after parts of three seasons. While last year’s winless full-time campaign may not have met the lofty expectations of his future Hall of Fame owner, the 2019 ARCA Menards Series champ has shown enough in spurts to maintain the confidence of his manufacturer.

He knows he has to make the most of this opportunity, however, as Thursday’s news shows just how fickle opportunity can be at racing’s highest levels.

The ability to focus entirely on checkered flags and not the points standings is a notion both he and Enfinger pointed to, and it might work out well enough to further showcase each of their individual skills for future shots.

“I think honestly, it’s pretty nice we don’t have to worry about points or making the playoffs, for each other at least,” said Eckes, who finished eighth last year. “We can just kind of go run as well as we can and try to win races and be aggressive and if we make it to the playoffs I feel we’ll have a pretty good shot at the owner’s championship. All just about making that and win some races. … It’s going to take a lot of hard work from me and Grant to get to that goal but I think it’s achievable that the team that we’ve kind of assembled with ThorSport as a whole.”

Splitting a ride with a championship contender in his prime isn’t the only potential wrinkle of awkwardness Eckes may run into this year. He’s now teammates with Ben Rhodes, who he had a particularly fiery run-in with at Texas Motor Speedway just a few short months ago.

After the incident, the No. 99 Toyota driver reached out to Eckes in a text message that went completely unanswered — until recently.

MORE: Ben Rhodes has choice words for Christian Eckes after run-in

“I texted (Ben) the other day. I finally responded to the text he sent me, I don’t know, four months ago,” Eckes said. “We’ll go get some dinner or something to smooth it over. At the end of the day, it was in 2020 and yeah, rough deal. But whatever. Team first.”

Three-time series champ Matt Crafton, who will also return to the stable alongside longtime teammate Johnny Sauter, interjected with a nod to an infamous meeting between Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus — and perhaps to their ages, which combined are still less than the series vet’s 44 years on Earth.

“They’re gonna have to get milk and cookies together,” Crafton said.

To his credit, Rhodes is open to mending fences despite the championship implications the fracas caused, and he hopes it can actually wind up being a good thing.

“I need to have a run-in with somebody that I really, really like this year, that way they can become my teammate,” Rhodes said. “In the past couple of years, I get into a run-in with Johnny Sauter two years in a row, I think, at Canada and then he becomes my teammate. And then obviously Christian and I had a run-in last year and now he’s my teammate.

“But I’m proud to say that Johnny and I started off on a rough path and now I would consider him one of my better friends at the race track and I hope the same can be said with Christian and I.”