AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cautions, restarts, retribution, extra laps and high-action marked Friday night’s NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway. And that was just the final 50 laps.
In the end, ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes claimed his second series championship in the last three years with a hard-earned fifth-place finish in the No. 99 Ford, while McAnally Hilgemann Racing’s Christian Eckes raced to his fourth win of the season by a slight .421-seconds over rookie teammate Jake Garcia in four dramatic overtime periods.
That’s the conclusion to an evening that featured 12 caution periods, 29 laps of overtime competition and plenty of high-stakes racing – especially among the four championship contenders that earned a chance to settle the season title.
Perhaps indicative of the night, Rhodes’ finish and ultimate trophy haul wasn’t secure until the checkered flag, with championship runner-up Grant Enfinger giving it his all in the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet coming off Turn 4 in an all-out pursuit to the very end.
Both Rhodes and Enfinger had survived close calls in the overtime laps. Rhodes collided with Zane Smith racing for the lead – hitting Smith’s truck when it appeared Smith missed a shift out front in the second overtime restart. Enfinger had close calls in two of the four extra-lap periods and still was able to pull off that final push forward, ultimately finishing one position behind Rhodes in the standings.
The Regular Season Champion and race pole sitter Corey Heim finished 18th after contact from fellow Championship 4 driver Carson Hocevar with 30 laps of regulation remaining in the scheduled 150-lap race.
“I can’t even believe it,” the 26-year-old Kentucky native Rhodes said of his dramatic title win. “It’s just so awesome, man. To go 25 laps into overtime, do you know what that feels like? It’s crazy. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I thought we were going to pop a tire, that anything that could have gone wrong was going to go wrong. Grant [Enfinger] almost got me. But hats off to him, he ran a great race. I wouldn’t’ want to race against anybody else for the championship. He raced me clean, and I respect the heck out of him for it.”
“I saw him,” Rhodes said of Enfinger’s final push forward in the last corner. “He went for everything, but he ran me clean, and I thank him for that. That’s what these championships are all about.”
Enfinger, whose GMS Racing team is closing shop at the end of the season, was especially gutted to come so very close to his first championship.
“I don’t know,” Enfinger said of doing anything differently on that last lap.
“Obviously we got loose there at the end,” he continued. “Maybe if he didn’t have such a good run down the backstretch, we’d be able to make that pass. It’s a shame the championship came down to a race like that with 15 green-white-checkers or whatever it was. I feel like we did everything we could to win this and just got used up.”
The other two championship contenders, Heim and Hocevar had a more contentious situation on-track. Heim, whose 47 laps out front in the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota were second most laps led on the night, was actually leading the championship-eligible drivers when Hocevar hit him going into Turn 2 with 30 laps remaining. The contact sent Heim’s Toyota into Stewart Friesen’s Toyota which hit the wall and brought out a caution. Hocevar continued on and Heim had to pit for repairs and went down a lap.
Heim viewed the hit as intentional and later in the race, collided with Hocevar bringing out another caution period. Heim insisted his car just wasn’t steering properly at the time, while Hocevar said he had fully expected the payback. It was enough to sideline Hocevar’s No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet which was credited with a 29th-place finish from the garage.
“My only goal was to try slow him down,” Hocevar said. “I didn’t want to do that at all. With my track record, I can’t sit here and say I didn’t mean to. I just messed up. I was trying really hard to slow him up and just messed it up. I feel bad I robbed him of that and feel sorry for that,” an apologetic Hocevar added of Heim’s championship chances. “I just messed up.”
The 21-year-old Heim had a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes coming into the race and was considered the favorite by many. He had three wins on the season in only his first full-time year of competition.
“It was a great year, a phenomenal year for us and our worst finish in like six months,” a disappointed Heim said. “Really put together a good race and really hoped the guys would race clean, I have a lot of respect for everybody in the field. But clearly, I don’t anymore. It is what it is, it’s part of racing.
As for the later contact with Hocevar, Heim said it was purely coincidental, “It wasn’t retaliation. I had no side force, he put it on my door, and I wrecked [into him].”
“I’ve been racing Carson for a long time, racing since I was eight or nine years-old,” Heim said later. “That’s kind of just what he does. He’ll wreck you and apologize and do it again the next week. So that’s not going to be the last time he does it and certainly the first time he’d done it. I’ve known him for a long time. … it is what it is. I completely expected it.”
As for his victory, the 22-year-old Eckes tried to reconcile the championship race win with having just been eliminated from Playoff contention. He had a win (at Kansas) and a pair of runner-up finishes (Indianapolis Raceway Park and Bristol, Tenn.) during the Playoff stretch but was eliminated after finished of 19th and 20th in the two races leading into the championship finale.
“Those two races that killed the whole Playoffs pretty much and that’s just kind of the nature of it,” Eckes said. “I didn’t do my job last week and really the week before either. That gets us out and that puts us in this situation, but it’s motivating for next year and it was motivating for this race too. This one kind of stings, I know it’s a win, but the stupid mistakes the last two weeks of a near perfect Playoffs cost us a championship. This one kind of stings, I know it’s a win, but the stupid mistakes the last two weeks of a near perfect Playoffs cost us a championship. It’s kind of hard to be happy right now, but overall, just super proud of everybody for the year that we’ve had and just ready for 2024.”
Chase Purdy, Jesse Love and Rhodes rounded out the top five. Enfinger, Dean Thompson, Kaden Honeycutt, Tanner Gray and Nick Sanchez completed the top 10. It was a career best finish for the runner-up Garcia as well as Love and Honeycutt.
Note: Inspection has concluded in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series garage with no issues, confirming Eckes as the winner and Rhodes as the champion. NASCAR additionally tore down the engines of the Nos. 99 and 19 trucks Saturday morning and found no issues.