By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – “Friday Night Lights” took on a whole new meaning at Kansas Speedway following an outrageous green-white-checkered finish under the influence of the glory and dejection that comes with playoff racing.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series saw its Round of 10 come to an end in a finish that had to be seen to believe.
What a finish!
— NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Trucks (@NASCAR_Trucks) September 9, 2023
Doubled up for the final restart of the night, the three most dominant trucks were lined up nose-to-tail on the inside lane with Corey Heim leading Carson Hocevar and Nick Sanchez – all of who combined for about 86% of the laps led in the Kansas Lottery 200.
Up top was reigning champion Zane Smith on the front row and Christian Eckes behind him, who both were hesitant to pick the outside lane due to its failure to get going virtually all night.
At the drop of the green flag, Smith and Heim took big pushes from the second row – the latter much more aggressively in an effort to compensate for lack of help from Sanchez. The No. 11 got out to an early lead, as the No. 38 quickly closed the gap with the No. 19 lagging back.
As the top-two trucks sailed it off into Turn 3 side-by-side, Eckes took them three-wide on the highside as the white flag was displayed. He then let Heim and Smith battle it out down the backstretch.
It wasn’t until Turn 3 yet again that Eckes made his move by darting to the bottom of the track and pulled a herculean slide job on Smith, which loosened up the No. 38, and allowed the McAnally Hilgemann Racing driver to steal his third win of the season.
Eckes, who only led the final two laps of the race, credited his race-winning move to studying tons of film from Kansas. He specifically referenced a move made by Kyle Busch in the Truck Series two years ago at the 1.5-mile track in the same spot (Turn 3) as the reason he was able to adapt and win.
“Right place, right time,” Eckes said. “That’s usually how these Truck restarts go. They’re always really tough and you have to be in the right spot. We were in a good position twice to take the lead, and the last one stuck.”
Once the drivers exited their vehicles on pit road, it was as if the top finishers had seen a ghost – maybe in the form of that white No. 19. But at a time where guys like Heim, Smith and Hocevar should’ve been reveling in the fact they’d advanced into the Round of 8, all three were in a state of disarray.
Most notably, 21-year-old Heim seemingly fought back tears as he saw his dominant, 40-lap leading performance – in which he was the control truck on the final restart – result in a fourth-place outing at Kansas.
While Eckes was “right place, right time,” it was the opposite for the TRICON Garage driver.
“I feel like we were wrong place, wrong time,” Heim said. “Everytime we got up front, someone would bring out a caution. I feel like I definitely could’ve done a better job, but I had my rear tires off the ground for 300 yards on that last restart. Trying to put power down when your rear tires are up from the floor from (Hocevar), it’s tough. I think he was just trying to help, but it didn’t help at all.”
For sixth-place finisher Hocevar, he felt clean air and a “lean lane choice” was the difference between him and his fourth win in 2023.
“I picked the bottom thinking, ‘It worked last time, it might work again,’” Hocevar said. “I was second guessing myself on the top and obviously the top won out. It’s just tough. I thought I nailed my restart next to [Heim], but I didn’t have any help at that time … the guy next to him did.
“The guys next to us were pushing just as good as us. That’s what happens when you have veterans and really good guys up front. [Sanchez] is still learning this stuff. I nailed it, he missed it.”
As for Smith, he thought he’d get a push from Eckes down the backstretch. But as the eventual winner noted – restarts never go as planned in the Truck Series.
While the reigning champion ended up with his 10th top-five of the season, he was an unsuccessful overcorrection away from potentially being eliminated from the playoffs with third-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto missing out on the next round by five points.
“[The restart] was as crazy as it probably looked,” Smith said. “I feel like we put ourselves in a good position restarting on the front row there and had good help from the No. 19. Fortunately, us two were able to get a good launch in that top lane, like most people hadn’t. … I was in a good spot to get the win.
“I thought I was going to get fenced by the No. 11 because I was on him pretty tight. Before I knew it, we were three-wide. Getting into [Turn] 3 here is so odd. A lot of people will run the top, but there’s so much distance you give up and I was just kind of trapped up there from being three-wide. [Eckes] was able to slide up and take my air away. I thought I was wrecked to be honest and it felt like a big save.”
That “big save” was enough to earn Smith a spot in the Round of 8 with Heim, Hocevar, Eckes, Grant Enfinger, Ty Majeski, Ben Rhodes and Nick Sanchez. The three-race set kicks off at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 14.