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Three fall short in Truck Series title battle at Phoenix: ‘You keep your head up’

AVONDALE, Ariz. — John Hunter Nemechek’s chances of winning the 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title went from likely to unlikely in less than a mile.

On the first lap of Friday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway, the No. 4 KBM Motorsports Toyota scraped the outside wall of the 1-mile track in Arizona, sustaining damage to the left side of the truck and eventually a flat tire. Nemechek fired off 16th and dropped to 30th. When the checkered flag waved 149 laps later, Nemechek had managed to make it back up to seventh, ultimately finishing third out of the Championship 4 drivers.

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Dontre Graves | NASCAR Digital Media

“It’s more frustrating knowing that we were so fast and nothing to show for it, right?” Nemechek said. “I definitely thought we were one of the best playoff trucks, if not the best playoff truck.”

RELATED: Race results | Ben Rhodes wins 2021 title

Chandler Smith, who was eliminated from the playoff battle after the Round of 8, was the Lucas Oil 150 race winner.

Ben Rhodes won the 2021 title with his third-place showing. Zane Smith came in fifth to end up second in the final standings for the second straight season. Matt Crafton was then 12th to round out the finalists’ results.

Rhodes’s No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota took the Championship 4 lead with eight laps remaining in the 150-lap event, nudging the left-rear bumper of Smith’s No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet to make a pass on the inside. Smith expressed no hard feelings toward the move, only toward falling short for the second year in a row, especially since he doesn’t have a ride lined up for 2022.

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Dontre Graves | NASCAR Digital Media

“Definitely sucks,” Smith said. “I mean, the championship would have probably fixed a whole lot of things, but I don’t know. I guess I need to be better and figure out what I need to do better in those situations, which I really don’t know. Like if I was to go to sleep tonight, I don’t know what else I could have done different.”

Crafton, who is much more of a veteran, had a piece of advice.

“You keep your head up,” Crafton said. “Nemechek has a long career. Zane will, too. I mean, he’ll land on his feet. He’s got a lot of speed, he won races and done well, and he finished second two years in a row. He has nothing to hang his head on. I mean, it’s easy to get yourself down. But at the end of the day, he was here fighting for a championship, that’s a whole hell of a lot better than fifth on back in points.”

A three-time champion, Crafton has been competing full time since 2001. Rhodes has six seasons under his belt. This was Nemechek’s first full-time schedule since 2017 and Smith’s second overall.

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Dontre Graves | NASCAR Digital Media

Crafton’s No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota never made it to Victory Lane this year. Smith won one race – actually Martinsville Speedway last week to launch himself from below the elimination line and into the Championship 4. Rhodes had two wins – the first two races at Daytona International Speedway. Nemechek, meanwhile, boasted a series-high five.

“I’ve gotten asked the question of, is this year a failure if we didn’t win the championship?” Nemechek said. “Now that I’m there, no, it wasn’t a failure.”