Grant Enfinger picked a fine time to win his first race of the season.
Charging to the front on fresh tires after the TSport 200 went to overtime on Friday night, Enfinger passed Zane Smith for the lead on Lap 206 of 207 and went on to win the first event in the 2022 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs.
In the return of the series to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park for the first time since 2011, Enfinger beat runner-up Ben Rhodes to the finish line by 0.477. Rhodes passed Smith on the final lap to secure the second spot.
With his first victory since 2020 and the seventh of his career, Enfinger gained automatic advancement to the second round of the playoffs after a regular season that saw a lackluster performance by his GMS Racing team and a reunion with veteran crew chief Jeff Hensley before the July 9 race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
It was Hensley who brought Enfinger to pit road for a tire change after Carson Hocevar knocked Colby Howard into the outside wall on Lap 191 of 200. That call proved decisive.
“We’ve just been off a little bit as an organization,” Enfinger said. “We’ve been working so hard because we’ve been sucking. It hurts to say it, but we’ve had a terrible season to this point. But we had a great Chevrolet all day. It felt like every time we got into the lead, a caution came out, and it put Hensley in a bad spot. I knew from experience to just trust his gut.”
Zane Smith held third in a finish that was not without controversy. The playoff’s top seed entering the race, Smith had crowded Chandler Smith into the outside wall earlier in the event, damaging both trucks.
Zane Smith also sustained damage in a three-truck incident involving Lawless Allen and Chase Purdy, but he brought his No. 38 Ford to pit road for fresh tires on Lap 156 and worked his way forward over the closing 40 laps.
On the final restart on Lap 206, Zane Smith pinched eventual 10th-place finisher John Hunter Nemechek into the outside wall and took the top spot until Enfinger made the winning pass.
It was Nemechek, though, who sent the race to overtime when he spun race leader Taylor Gray in Turn 3 on Lap 199 of a scheduled 200.
Nemechek insisted the accident was unintentional.
“Sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield, and tonight we were the bug,” said Nemechek, who led a race-high 75 laps and won the first stage. “I made a mistake early on and spun myself, and we had a restart there at the end on old tires.
“Everybody had fresher tires. I tried driving down in the bottom of (Turn) 3 underneath the 17 (Gray), and I just kept sliding and accidentally got into his left rear. I tried to stay off him. That team has their opinion, I have my opinion, and I’m sure we’ll talk at some point.”
Playoff driver Stewart Friesen finished fourth behind Zane Smith, followed by Corey Heim, Tyler Ankrum and Layne Riggs in his debut. Playoff drivers Ty Majeski, Matt Crafton and Nemechek completed the top 10.
Those results left Crafton and 16th-place finisher Christian Eckes seven points below the current cut line. After the third race of the first round, the playoff field will be trimmed from 10 drivers to eight. Hocevar is eighth in the standings, seven points to the good.
The penultimate race in the Round of 10 is Saturday, August 13 at Richmond Raceway (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Nemechek won at Richmond in 2021.
NOTE: Inspection is complete in the Truck Series garage with no issues, confirming Enfinger as the race winner.
Contributing: Staff reports