Saturday, March 2, 2024

Ben Rhodes survives to win 2023 NASCAR Truck Series championship

As an inebriated Ben Rhodes remarked to the press that dinosaurs did not exist (thanks to a bet with his friend Chase Cabre), Carson Hocevar and Corey Heim were hoping they could throw the other into the jaws of one.

Heim, the regular season champion, mathematically could have clinched the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series title before Friday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway under a season-long points system. With the existence of the playoff format, however, he had to hold off Hocevar, Rhodes, and Grant Enfinger.

All of this came to naught when Heim was spun by Hocevar on lap 121. While Heim was not eliminated from contention, his retaliation twenty laps later triggered a series of events that ended the season in virtual disaster. On lap 148, while Enfinger was holding the championship lead with just three laps remaining, Heim pulled in front of Hocevar and forced him into the wall, ending the latter’s title hopes.

Hocevar apologised for the initial contact. While the young driver proved his mettle in a breakout 2023 campaign, he has also developed a reputation for an aggressive driving style. As such, he conceded that he couldn’t “sit here and say I didn’t mean to, but I just fucked up. I just messed up. I was just trying really hard, blocking, doing everything I could, I just tried to slow him down, and I just messed up.”

Heim suffered damage that knocked him back but the ensuing chaos in overtime allowed him to salvage an eighteenth-place finish. While stressing that the second wreck was not intentional, he was not keen on accepting Hocevar’s remorse.

“I’ve been racing Carson for a long time, racing him since I was eight or nine years old, and that’s just kind of what he does. He’ll wreck you and apologise, and then he’ll do it again the next week,” Heim stated. “It’s not going to be the last time he does it, and it’s certainly not the first time he’s done it. Known him for a long time, and I know a lot of guys have only known him for four years as far as his racing career, but it’s been a decade on top of that.”

With Hocevar and Heim, arguably the top two drivers in 2023, no longer threats, Enfinger and Rhodes had to survive overtime. Despite being in position to win the title in GMS Racing‘s final race, a poor restart sent Enfinger backwards and he fell out of the top twenty before Derek Kraus wrecked to set up another overtime.

Rhodes ensured none of the Championship Round drivers escaped Phoenix with a clean truck when he clipped Zane Smith on the next restart and spun him into Jack Wood. Despite the damage, his truck was still able to continue while Enfinger remained too far back to catch him. Enfinger’s glimmer of hope seemingly grew when Rhodes’ ThorSport Racing team-mates Ty Majeski and Matt Crafton were then caught up in another accident to begin the third overtime.

Despite restarting thirteenth for the fourth overtime, Enfinger gave chase before catching up to Rhodes for fifth. After navigating past Dean Thompson for sixth coming to the finish, his Hail Mary overtake on Rhodes in turn four failed and the latter held on for his second championship.

“Didn’t see this one coming,” commented Enfinger, who now enters free agency. “I thought you for sure had to win the race tonight to win this championship, and then it was just a matter of survival. We, all four, had destroyed trucks at the end.

“I don’t know what I would do different. It’s just an unfortunate way to kind of send out GMS Racing. We had the championship there in grasp with three to go and just kind of went away. I don’t really know if I’d have done anything different.”

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Rhodes secured ThorSport’s fifth championship after his 2021 crown and Crafton’s three in 2013, 2014, and 2019. Like his first title, he showed up to the post-race conference drunk on alcohol: he drank his and crew chief Rich Lushes‘ champagne out of his shoe—which he recalled were “a real litre and a half, a European”—followed by Bud Light.

Christian Eckes (race winner) came up to me before the race and said, ‘Hey, you’re looking good, man. Those other guys, they’re just shaking. They’re scared. They’re shaking.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s cool. I don’t know really know what to think about that,’” a hammered Rhodes quipped. “It feels normal. We’ve been doing this like three years in a row now. It feels normal. I’m glad we’re here, but I didn’t really think nothing of it. I just thought we’ve got to run our own race.

“The thing that was disturbing to me was running second to Corey and he’s driving away at the start of the race. I knew there would be late-race cautions, I just didn’t know there would be like a billion of them. Is that the right number, a billion?”

While not necessarily a billion, the race ended with ten cautions excluding stage breaks and even featured a red flag that spanned nearly twelve minutes. This resulted in the race lasting over two and a half hours; at 2:30:42, it was the longest oval race in Truck Series history and fourteen minutes shy of the 2021 Daytona Road Course event for the longest in the series overall. Coincidentally, Rhodes also won that race en route to his first championship.

The litany of accidents prompted many fans and even Cup Series drivers to criticise the field for their poor conduct. Daniel Dye was not medically cleared for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race after being caught up in a crash on lap 131 that necessitated the red flag for cleanup, prompting his Xfinity team owner Tommy Joe Martins to describe the race as the “most embarrassing display of driving I’ve ever seen.” Tyler Reddick called Hocevar a “dumbass” and added he “will never learn” following the Heim spin, while Chris Buescher lamented the “pitiful lack of sportsmanship.”

“This is what happens when there’s no rules, no officiating,” wrote Denny Hamlin. “You get a product like this. ‘The show’ has taken over US Motorsports and why it’s hard to take seriously.”

To add insult to an already chaotic night, the restart zone was incorrectly moved up by NASCAR for the Truck race. It was amended in time for Xfinity and Cup.

Amidst the championship and other race drama, Eckes led a McAnally-Hilgemann Racing 1–2 finish with Jake Garcia in tow; the victory was Eckes’ fourth of the season while Garcia wraps up his MHR tenure with the best run of his rookie season. Chase Purdy placed third in the final event for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 8 19 Christian Eckes McAnally-Hilgemann Racing Chevrolet 179 Running
2 14 35 Jake Garcia McAnally-Hilgemann Racing Chevrolet 179 Running
3 5 4 Chase Purdy Kyle Busch Motorsports Chevrolet 179 Running
4 10 1 Jesse Love TRICON Garage Toyota 179 Running
5 6 99 Ben Rhodes ThorSport Racing Ford 179 Running
6 17 23 Grant Enfinger GMS Racing Chevrolet 179 Running
7 15 5 Dean Thompson TRICON Garage Toyota 179 Running
8 27 02 Kaden Honeycutt Young’s Motorsports Chevrolet 179 Running
9 25 15 Tanner Gray TRICON Garage Toyota 179 Running
10 3 2 Nick Sanchez Rev Racing Chevrolet 179 Running
11 28 88 Matt Crafton ThorSport Racing Ford 179 Running
12 9 24 Rajah Caruth † GMS Racing Chevrolet 179 Running
13 31 45 Lawless Alan Niece Motorsports Chevrolet 179 Running
14 2 98 Ty Majeski ThorSport Racing Ford 179 Running
15 23 13 Hailie Deegan ThorSport Racing Ford 179 Running
16 32 22 Christian Rose AM Racing Ford 179 Running
17 34 04 Spencer Davis Roper Racing Ford 179 Running
18 1 11 Corey Heim TRICON Garage Toyota 179 Running
19 35 20 Nick Leitz Young’s Motorsports Chevrolet 179 Running
20 36 56 Tyler Hill Hill Motorsports Toyota 179 Running
21 26 9 Colby Howard CR7 Motorsports Chevrolet 179 Running
22 19 16 Tyler Ankrum Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota 178 Running
23 12 17 Taylor Gray † TRICON Garage Toyota 177 Running
24 20 52 Stewart Friesen Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota 175 Running
25 4 38 Zane Smith Front Row Motorsports Ford 172 Accident
26 21 75 Sean Hingorani Henderson Motorsports Chevrolet 167 Accident
27 7 51 Jack Wood Kyle Busch Motorsports Chevrolet 162 Accident
28 16 77 Derek Kraus Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 156 Accident
29 13 42 Carson Hocevar Niece Motorsports Chevrolet 146 Accident
30 24 25 Stefan Parsons Rackley WAR Chevrolet 128 Accident
31 11 41 Bayley Currey Niece Motorsports Chevrolet 128 Accident
32 22 43 Daniel Dye # GMS Racing Chevrolet 128 Accident
33 18 61 Jake Drew Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota 100 Accident
34 29 66 Conner Jones ThorSport Racing Ford 100 Accident
35 33 7 Marco Andretti Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Accident
36 30 30 Chris Hacker On Point Motorsports Toyota 53 Accident
DNQ 12 Spencer Boyd Young’s Motorsports Chevrolet
DNQ 33 Keith McGee Reaume Brothers Racing Ford
Bold – Champion
Underline – Championship Round
Italics – Rookie of the Year
† – Competed for Rookie of the Year