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November 2, 2023

Truck championship favorites not interested in labels — just trophies

truck contenders

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Regular Season Champion Corey Heim insisted Thursday morning at Phoenix Raceway there is no absolute clear-cut championship favorite among the four drivers racing for the big trophy Friday night. But of course. … he certainly likes his chances.

Despite one fewer start than the rest of the full-time field – Heim missed the Gateway race because of illness – the driver of the No. 11 Tricon Garage Toyota leads the series in top fives (12), top 10s (19) and stage wins (seven). He brings a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes to Phoenix. And his 564 laps led is double that of any other full-time competitor.

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The 21-year-old Georgia native – who is competing in his first full-time season – has only a single previous Phoenix start; leading five laps and finishing seventh last year driving for Kyle Busch. But he’s been preparing for this race since locking himself in early in the final round of the Playoffs.

“I’ve heard it go both ways, so I don’t know, but I think we’ve earned that (favorite) label,” Heim said. “I guess it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day until you win it. I feel like we have just been so rock solid and consistent since the springtime. We’ve done a good job of executing every week and we show up with fast Toyota Tundra TRD Pros.

“I feel like ever since around Martinsville when our first win happened, we kind of knew that we were capable of it. It was just a matter of executing from that point.”

Since his maiden national series victory at the Martinsville half-miler in April, Heim has led laps in all but one race (Talladega) and finished outside the top five only three times. It’s the kind of track record that has helped generate confidence and expectation.

Heim said he’s got plenty of family coming in from all over the country to support him this week, and he’s been relying on other Toyota Racing Development (TRD) drivers such as fellow national series title contenders John Hunter Nemechek and Christopher Bell, who have had championship experience, for tips on the sim and what to expect this weekend.

“It was nice to be able to kind of spread out some of my studying and really just sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up and knowing what I need to do, and that has been really big for me,” Heim said. “I understand the circumstances and with this being my first full-time season and my first playoffs, being able to sit on it under the circumstances and the pressure has really let me just come here and feel a lot better about it.

“It would be a lot different if I just won my way in at (the last race) Homestead or something and had a week and a half to think about it. But I feel like I’d be more unprepared and coming in with a lot of pressure on me.

“But to be able to sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up, kind of know what I need to do, was really big for me.”

Carson Hocevar won’t be unprepared for Truck Series Championship race

Carson Hocevar doesn’t consider his flat tire an omen. He’d prefer to think of it as bad luck that’s now behind him.

“A few days ago, I hit a curb with my truck and got a flat,” Hocevar said during a question-and-answer session with reporters during Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway.

Hocevar wasn’t referring to the No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet he’ll drive in Friday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Championship race at the 1-mile track in the Sonoran Desert (10 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The 20-year-old driver was happy the flat tire happened with his personal truck and not on the race track.

“We got it out of the way, hopefully,” Hocevar said.

The incident with the truck was a minor inconvenience during a week in which Hocevar has been running simulations to prepare for Phoenix, not only for his own Truck Series effort but also for the NASCAR Cup Series teams at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron qualified for the Championship 4 on the Cup side.

“We’ve done at least a hundred runs of sim just on Phoenix alone from the start of the playoffs till now,” said Hocevar, who will graduate to the Cup Series in a Spire Motorsports car next year. “I’ve done hours and hours. I’ve done Cup sim these past few weeks for Phoenix, with Hendrick to run for the final four.

“I’ve done days with (trainer) Josh Wise where we don’t even work on the race car – we just work on myself. And obviously, with Niece, we’ve worked since the beginning of the year even, just working on Phoenix alone …

“I think we’ve gotten it a little bit better just in the last two days.”

Now, if Hocevar can just keep all four tires up, he expects to be a contender for the Truck Series title before he makes the jump to Cup. He’ll find out Friday night.