Ben Rhodes secured his second NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship after finishing fifth as Christian Eckes won the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
The 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season finale took place at Phoenix Raceway on Friday night, with Christian Eckes winning the race and Ben Rhodes prevailing the war for the title.
Eckes clinched his fifth career race win and fourth of the season while Rhodes won the fifth series title for ThorSport Racing and his second Truck Series title in three years after finishing in fifth place at Phoenix Raceway.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Championship season finale at Phoenix Raceway on Friday night was filled with cautions, restarts, reprisal, extra laps, and intense action as all unfolded during the last fifty laps.
That brings an end to an evening full of high-stakes racing, especially between the four championship contenders who qualified to battle for the season title, which also included 12 caution periods and 29 laps of overtime action.
Perhaps fitting for the evening, championship runner-up Grant Enfinger gave it everything he had in the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet coming off Turn 4 in a furious chase to the very end, making Rhodes’ finish and final trophy haul uncertain until the checkered flag.
In the overtime laps, Enfinger and Rhodes had both avoided major collisions. Rhodes and Smith collided as they raced for the lead, with Smith’s truck getting hit after it looked like Smith missed a shift out front in the second overtime restart.
Enfinger managed to make a last push ahead despite near misses in two of the four extra-lap periods and he ultimately finished one spot behind Rhodes in the championship standings.
“I can’t even believe it,” Ben 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 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.”
Regular season champion Corey Heim had a logical chance to win the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship ahead of Friday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway. But he had to hold off Grant Enfinger, Hocevar, and Rhodes as a result of the playoff format under a season-long points system.
All of this was for nothing, though, as on lap 121, Hocevar spun Heim. Although Heim was still in the run for the title, his revenge twenty laps later set off a chain of events that practically brought the season to a conclusion.
With three laps to go, Enfinger was leading the championship when Heim passed him on lap 148 and sent him into the wall, ending Hocevar’s chances of winning the title.
The contact caused Stewart Friesen’s Toyota to collide with the wall after making contact with Heim’s Toyota which triggered a caution. Hocevar continued racing, forcing Heim to pit for maintenance and eventually got lapped.
After colliding with Hocevar later in the race, Heim—who saw the hit as intentional—triggered another caution. Hocevar claimed he had fully anticipated the retaliation, while Heim maintained his car was simply not steering properly at the time of the incident. However, Hocevar’s No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet was unable to overcome the crash, and eventually took home a 29th-place finish from the garage.
Enfinger and Rhodes had to hold out through overtime considering Hocevar and Heim, who were possibly the league’s top two drivers in 2023, were no longer a threat. In the GMS Racing title race, Enfinger was leading the pack, but a bad restart knocked him down, and he finished outside the top twenty just before Derek Kraus wrecked to force another overtime.
“Didn’t see this one coming,” said Enfinger. “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.”
Regarding his triumph, 22-year-old Eckes attempted to make sense of his victory given that he had just been ruled out of the Playoffs. During the Playoff push, he finished second twice (in Indianapolis Raceway Park and Bristol, Tenn.) and won once (in Kansas). However, he was eliminated after finishing 19th and 20th in the two races that preceded 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.
“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.”
Rhodes, Jesse Love, and Chase Purdy took the top five as Tanner Gray, Nick Sanchez, Enfinger, Dean Thompson, and Kaden Honeycutt rounded out the top 10. For Love, Honeycutt, and the runner-up, Garcia, it was a career-best finish.