AVONDALE, Ariz. – In order to finish first, one must first finish.
These words of wisdom have been shared across the world with race car drivers yearning for their shot, their chance at a trophy. It rings true no matter the level, the class, the age group. Everyone wants to win and feel the thrills of fame and glory.
But an unwise decision can ruin those chances for a driver, whether they are directly involved or not.
The championship race at Phoenix Raceway for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race started well. Corey Heim showed early strength leading 47 of the originally scheduled 150 laps. In the final stage, Carson Hocevar had to do something different for a chance at the title and intentionally got off sequence by pitting early. Four fresh Goodyear tires on his No. 42 Niece Motorsports truck allowed him to chase Heim down late in the run. With less than 30 laps to go, Hocevar dove under the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota Tundra but overdrove the corner and tagged Heim in the rear corner, sending him sideways and crashing out the innocent bystander of Stewart Friesen.
Hocevar was infuriated with himself, slamming the steering wheel of his Chevrolet Silverado under the caution laps after costing Heim a legitimate shot at the championship.
Heim wanted the final say.
In the closing laps, Heim laid back and drove wide in the exit of turn two, shoving Hocevar into the outside wall. That decision in the end was at the expense of Grant Enfinger’s chance at the title.
“It obviously got way out of hand by the end of the race, and it’s unfortunate that it affected the championship battle,” said 2022 Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric.
Out of hand is an understatement. Four overtimes and 29 laps beyond the scheduled distance was required before the checkered flag could finally wave for Christian Eckes who survived all the ensuing chaos that plagued the field. Ben Rhodes was able to hold off a hard charging Enfinger to claim his second career Truck championship.
While Rhodes was happy-go-lucky all throughout the night, it wasn’t just sadness, defeat and disappointment across the rest of the field.
It was an eerie night for drivers and fans.
“I was not impressed,” declared 2017 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Martin Truex Jr. “That is not professional auto racing. It’s a joke; they need to fix it.”
“Glad to be sitting and watching it. I was so excited when I signed my Xfinity deal that I was able to watch those races and not be a part of them,” chuckled Justin Haley, race winner across all three national touring series of NASCAR.
Those are just the beginning of the comments and insights provided by the NASCAR Cup Series garage.
Drivers hopped on social media to clarify the difference between the early aggressive racing and the late turmoil that left multiple trucks unnecessarily in parts and pieces.
“As a racer, disgraceful,” summarized Ryan Preece, with two career Truck wins across his 12 series starts. “It was not what I wanted to watch on a Friday night in Phoenix and see how it played out like that.”
All of this isn’t directed at Rhodes to take away his championship spotlight by any means. The two-time champion drove exactly that way on Friday night: like a champion. He drove smart throughout the race, didn’t put his No. 99 ThorSport Racing truck in unnecessary challenges and found prime positioning to fend off a veteran of the sport. The 26-year-old joined a lucrative list of past NASCAR Truck champions with multiple titles, including NASCAR Hall of Fame member Ron Hornaday Jr.
It does, however, show a steep discrepancy between the level of respect for their competition, for their teams and for their sanctioning body.
“There’s just a common thread and a common theme from grassroots all the way to the Truck Series,” explained two-time Cup winner Michael McDowell. “There’s just not a tremendous amount of racecraft and race quality and dueling and battling. It’s more of slam it in there and hope it sticks. We’ve lost some of the finesse in how to do those things.”
The Truck Series Isn’t For Beginners
One important clarification for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is that this isn’t a “feeder” series or a racing club for first-time drivers. Nearly every competitor has already proven themselves in some form or another through a local club, weekly series or small engine racing like karting or motocross. Some even take the narrower and more concise path of the ARCA Menards Series or the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour.
Drivers don’t simply become a Truck Series racer. It is something earned and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“I’ve had that literal exact conversation with my dad this morning,” said 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher. “It’s not a learning series. It is one of the top levels of motor sports in the country. It should look like it and we’ve seen knee jerk reactions and situations. We see it in local series every week. Right now, it’s certainly a mentality change and it’s just frustrating watching (that) stuff happen. That affects a lot more people than someone who is upset that they got bumped at one point.
“Yesterday, (Heim) should have been mad. He got dumped first, but there’s a lot bigger picture going on in all these races. Everybody’s very much in the moment about what their certain situation is and you just don’t see conversations had anymore. It just comes down to those temper tantrums, that quick immediate response of, ‘I got to do something right now to remedy this.’
“It affects a ton of other people and affects the race that we’ve got millions of eyes on.”
As an Xfinity champion, the ‘minor league’ of NASCAR, the competition is not far off from the ‘major league’ of the Cup series. The respect factor also seems much closer in line with each other. Saturday night’s Xfinity Championship Race saw all of the Championship 4 drivers battling four-wide door-to-door in the closing laps. They leaned on each other, left some tire marks and saw a bit of smoke from some of their cars.
But they didn’t wreck each other.
“Last night, I’m sorry, we were sitting at dinner, and I wanted to turn it off because it didn’t show what I know that our sport is capable of,” said NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 contender Justin Allgaier. “Now, those moments, they’re going to learn from them. Carson last night was highly critical of himself when he walked out of there. That’s fine. The next opportunity is how do you fix it. I think that he got a really difficult life lesson, but something that I think a lot more people need to learn. I think the more guys learn it, the better it is.
“I’ve heard lots of guys talking about it, but the respect level amongst the guys coming in is zero because they’re trying to prove a point, trying to earn a name. Even Sam (Mayer) and I have talked a lot about this. Sam pushed and took and banged and wrecked and did all these things. When it finally clicked, it was like a light switch.
“I think throughout the course of the season, he talked about it, but we have raced each other so hard, and really, you add the 21 into the mix, I don’t know there was a single race that one of the four — the 00, the 20, the 21 and myself — weren’t battling for a win at any given moment. I spun myself out to not run into the side of (Nemechek), knowing darned well that it probably gave me a set of tires down and was probably going to handicap our night. But that was the respect level that it took to do that.”
That came from the driver whose foot didn’t fit the Cinderella slipper once again. Allgaier has battled in the Championship 4 in six of the last eight NASCAR Xfinity Series seasons.
Instead, Cole Custer of Stewart Haas Racing had the perfect fit for the shoe to win his first career NASCAR championship. Team owner Tony Stewart compared the two championship battles over the past 24 hours.
“I desperately hope young kids that are racing go-karts, quarter midgets, Bandoleros, you name it, any of these young kids, tonight is the example that you want to go off of, not last night. That was an ‘S’ show last night. The scary part, I had conversations with people today about it, and what scares me is these kids watch that and think that that’s what they’re supposed to do.
“You go to go-kart races and kids’ parents are fighting because somebody is dumping — one kid is dumping another kid because that’s what they see on TV. Tonight was a great example that that’s not how you have to race. You can race clean. You can race door to door. You can race hard, but you can race each other with respect.
“I think the Truck Series has zero percent amount of it. You watch that show last night and it was whoever was going to have a straight car at the end of the race. So why doesn’t it leak over into the higher series? Drivers have a better understanding of the bigger picture. The tolerance level is significantly stricter, and the field holds each other accountable.”
Maybe it’s experience. Maybe it’s life lessons. Maybe it’s that light bulb that flips on in someone’s life. Either way, there’s a clear difference in just one series to the next that creates a lucid difference.
“I think that there is a higher level of maturity and respect among (Cup) drivers,” stated Chase Briscoe, a past ARCA Menards Series champion and race winner at the Cup level. “We’ve all been around a lot longer too. It should be that way. It goes back to the root of the situation though. The Truck Series drivers have a lot less seat time. I do feel like it should be held to a higher standard, but you know I feel like that when it comes to the Cup series, we will have a better race than that ultimately. I don’t see a place where it looks the same.”
Carson Hocevar’s Cup Series Graduation Comes with a Responsibility
The question now is how Hocevar approaches his rookie season in the upcoming 2024 NASCAR Cup Series. Last month, Spire Motorsports announced that the 20-year-old Michigan native would pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet Camaro for his first full-time season at the highest level in stock car racing. In just three short months, Hocevar will find himself weekly among the greatest stock car drivers in the world.
Three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin says that Hocevar simply “needs to get better.”
2017 Cup Series champion Truex called his apology fake.
“It’s an act,” Truex sneered. “I think he was just acting out to try to make people feel sorry for him.”
Competitors across the Cup field hope to send the message that actions speak louder than words. Some understand that balance will come over time and won’t be an overnight fix. But it does come with the understanding that some of those maturity steps should be promptly taken.
“I actually told him at the (Charlotte) Roval that he was doing a good job,” said Preece. “I took notice and a little bit of what he was learning at that point. When you do things like that last night, it really hurts you.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s conversation,” explained Tyler Reddick, two-time Xfinity Series champion. “We just need to see a better trend on track. Words only mean so much and hopefully that gets better. Even with the few races he’s had in the Cup series, he’s certainly upset some drivers along the way. We’ll see in due time. We’ll see if that gets better.”
More Than Just the Truck Series
If there’s a will, there’s a way. Hamlin believes there may be a way for NASCAR to implement a tiered officiating system to split across their three national touring series: one strict format for Trucks, a balanced platform in Xfinity, and a freer system among Cup. While it is easier said than done, Hamlin said if approached by NASCAR President Steve Phelps or Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, he would be open to conversation to help build the Truck series to its fullest potential. That could include stiffer in-race penalties seen at local short tracks or club racing such as putting drivers to the rear for causing a wreck, whether intentional or not.
“That’s what they do in the local short tracks,” Hamlin explained. “I don’t understand. It shouldn’t be that hard. And I guess the fine line is, for instance, someone will say, ‘Well, what about Carson? Would that be an infraction?’ I’d say no. That would be a racing incident. Some of these are blatant enough that you can see that. Someone hits someone and they keep pushing. Those are the types of incidents you just know you penalize.
“But we’re never going to get there. I don’t think NASCAR is ever going to make that change. And you know, then my opinion of it is that it’s not even a short-term gain anymore. Sure, it gets some people on social media talking, but we’re not having more viewers because of this chaos that we’ve created.”
That social media buzz can sometimes create a false premise of positive intake. Both Hocevar and Heim were trending second on Twitter across the United States, but obviously for not the best of reasons. Finding positive ways to push the sport forward can be easily halted or reversed by one poor decision. No matter if they are NASCAR’s most popular driver, a photographer, a pit crew member or a rookie journalist. Everyone at the track working with, for or in NASCAR represents more than just themselves. They represent the sport, the sponsors, the fans, the teams, the tracks — all on a global stage.
Hamlin simply shared how hard of a pill it was for potential new fans tuning in on Friday night to see what NASCAR is all about.
“It’s hard to take it seriously, honestly,” Hamlin continued. “If you’re raw sports fan, I don’t know how you could say, ‘Well, wait a minute. I just knocked the other guy out of the way and it’s not a penalty.’ It’s some kind of correlation to people saying to take all the rules out of football, where you can hold, you can do whatever you want to do like. It’s just gotten a little out of hand, but it’s the drivers who are doing it. NASCAR’s not doing it, but sometimes you have to adapt to what you’re seeing out there.
“Certainly, if you deem that it’s not pushing our sport forward, I think you should do something about it. And I don’t think last night pushed our support forward.”
Friday night was not what NASCAR is all about. Saturday night showed a significant positive turn in the right direction. Sunday will most likely seal the deal for a successful championship weekend in the Arizona desert.
For all aspiring motor sport drivers around the world, understand that if you want to finish first, you must first finish.