The first race of the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs took the green this afternoon at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Louden, NH. Noah Gragson, who missed out on this year's playoffs, sat on the pole. The race was broken up into three stages. Stages one and two would be 55 laps, with stage three covering 65 circuits of the one mile, flat oval.
As the green flew at the start of the UNOH 175, Gragson jumped in front of the field, piloting his No. 18 KBM Toyota Tundra to a ten truck length lead over teammate Christopher Bell. 20 laps in, Bell began to close on the rear bumper of Gragson. The field had trouble finding grip in the corners, running almost a lane and a half off the bottom, but the lower groove appeared to be the lane where drivers could make a pass if they could make their truck stick.
Bell challenged for the lead with 30 laps to go in the stage. He and Gragson ran side-by-side for a couple laps before catching some back markers, forcing Bell to slide back into second. Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Todd Gilliland put on a good fight for Sauter's fifth position at this point of the race, with challenges in almost every corner, but Sauter continued to hold on to the spot. Bell pulled back beside Gragson with 24 to go but again could not complete the pass.
Playoff contender John Hunter Nemecheck came to pit road for an unscheduled pit stop from the 10th position with 23 laps remaining in the stage. Nemecheck was reporting a bad vibration when his team called him in for service. The No. 8 Chevrolet Silverado received two right side tires and fuel and returned to the race.
The No. 18 led every lap but one until 14 to go when Bell dove the No. 4 truck underneath Gragson as he over shot turns three and four, running himself high up the track. Bell took the opportunity to drive the No. 4 KBM Toyota Tundra low and into the lead.
Inside of 10 laps to go in the stage, John Hunter Nemechek drove his truck to the garage area with the earlier tire change unable to stop the vibration issue. His team feared that there may be a rear gear or drivetrain issue. This would put a serious dent in Nemecheck's chase for the championship.
Bell continued to lead to the green and white checkered flag that ended stage one. It was the sixth stage win of the season for the driver of the No. 4 Toyota Tundra. Gragson, fading after losing the lead to Bell, gave up second position to playoff driver Ben Rhodes. The top ten at the end of stage one, in order: Bell, Rhodes, Gragson, Austin Cindric, Sauter, Crafton, Ryan Truex, Gilliland, Grant Enfinger, Stuart Friesen.
Pit stops at the break between stages one and two seemed to go smoothly for the front runners, with most taking four tires and fuel. Three cars took two tires, Gilliland, Crafton and Kaz Grala, getting them out in the first three positions. They were followed by Bell, Gragson, Truex, Rhodes, Sauter, Cindric and Friesen. Gilliland would have to restart at the end of the longest line after receiving a penalty for running over equipment in his pit box during his stop.
Matt Crafton would lead the field to the green flag signaling the beginning of stage two. Kaz Grala would hang to Crafton's inside for the first lap, but Crafton would win the position and Grala lined up behind.
Three laps in, Noah Gragson got loose underneath Grala in turns three and four, with the two making contact. Gragson spun to the inside and Johnny Sauter caught him with the right side of his truck, causing damage to both the No. 21 and No. 18. Gragson became righted and pointed his truck towards pit road. Sauter continued on, discussing possible damage with his crew and deciding not to pit. Gragson made several stops to try and repair left front and splitter damage.
With 42 laps to go in the stage, the field once again took the green. Crafton returned to the front followed by Bell. Grala battled Sauter for fourth, but the No. 21 started to fall back, the damage to his right side apparently causing some issues with handling.
Caution returned with 39 to go for debris on the front stretch, possibly from Sauter's machine. The debris appeared to be the tailpipe assembly from the No. 21. Once again, Sauter and team decided to stay out on the track, holding on to precious track position.
The race returned to green with 35 laps to go in stage two. Christopher Bell jumped in front of Crafton around the outside heading into turn one for the race lead. A three wide battle for third took place just behind the lead, as Ryan Truex, Grant Enfinger and Kaz Grala squeezed into turn one at three abreast. Truex ended up the winner of that battle followed by Enfinger then Grala.
Todd Gilliland began to show tire smoke from his left front after a battle with Chase Briscoe for tenth place. The tire rub seemed to work itself out after a few laps, as smoke stopped coming from the No. 51. Johnny Sauter continued to hold onto sixth position despite his damage situation. John Hunter Nemecheck returned to the race down 36 laps after changing a rear gear.
Christopher Bell remained basically unchallenged the rest of stage two, holding about a twenty truck length lead to the green and white checkered flag to signal the end of the stage. This was the seventh stage win this season for Bell. Johnny Sauter continued to fight to keep position, holding on to finish in the top ten. The two tire strategy of the Crafton, Grala and Gilliland teams seemed to work well. All three ended the stage in the top ten, even with Gilliland's pit road penalty. Top ten finishers in stage two: Bell, Crafton, Truex, Enfinger, Grala, Friesen, Rhodes, Haley, Gilliland, Sauter.
Drivers took the opportunity between stages to bring their trucks to pit road for service. Again, there were three drivers taking only right side tires. They were Ben Rhodes, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley. They lead the race off pit road followed by Ryan Truex, Kaz Grala, Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton, Todd Gilliland, Stuart Friesen and Grant Enfinger, who all took four tires. Johnny Sauter's team spent an extended time in their pit attempting repairs to the No. 21 truck.
Ben Rhodes chose the outside for the start of stage three. As they crossed the start-finish line, the field stacked up behind the front row. No trucks appeared to have damage. Rhodes got out front going into turn one with the next few rows fanning out two and three wide to contest positions. Truex came away with second place with Bell taking over third. Cindric and Haley dropped back into the clutches of the field, both battling to stay in the top five.
With 49 laps to go, Austin Cindric spun coming out of turn four with a little help from behind by the No. 33 of Kaz Grala. These two had previously gotten together on the final lap at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, with Cindric using contact to take the win away from Grala coming to the checkers. Austin did not appear to make contact with other trucks or the wall as he spun. He pitted for fresh tires. Teammate Chase Briscoe also took the opportunity to come in, looking for adjustments to make his No. 29 more competitive. Grala remained on the track.
The race went back to green with 44 laps remaining. Truex put a slide job on Rhodes out of turn two and grabbed the lead. Bell looked to the inside of Rhodes into turn three and took second position. A couple laps later, Rhodes missed turn three and went extremely high through the corner, loosing several positions.
With 40 to go, Bell began to pressure Truex, but the No. 16 would slam the door closed whenever the No. 4 would peek to the inside. Behind, Stuart Friesen and Grant Enfinger had a side-by-side battle for several laps for fourth, with Enfinger eventually winning the position.
Truex and Bell settled into first and second as the laps began to click off half way through the final stage. Several battles took place inside the top ten, with Sauter and Grala, then Grala and Cindric, racing for position. Todd Gilliland held third with little pressure from behind.
At 25 laps to go, the field had settled into a rhythm. Most trucks in the top ten faced minimum pressure for position. Truex began to use a line where he was placing all four tires down on the apron through the corners. Bell held the line he had used throughout, about a lane and a half off the bottom. They were close enough that a mistake by the No. 16 would allow the No. 4 to pounce for position.
With 16 to go, Bell drove hard into turn three, diving in front of Truex but sliding high coming out of the corner. Truex was not close enough to capitalize on the crossover and Bell had control of the lead. Within a few laps, Bell pulled out to over a .75 second lead.
Christopher Bell took the checkered flag with a lead of 1.248 seconds over Ryan Truex, completing the sweep of all three stages at New Hampshire. Bell and Truex were followed across the line by Todd Gilliland. The win is Bell's fifth of the season and the seventh of his career. This is Bell's first win at New Hampshire. It was Bell's 11th finish inside of the top five in the 17 races run this season.
"It's a dream come true to drive for Kyle Busch Motorsports", said Bell after the race. When asked about battling Ryan Truex for the lead, Bell stated, "He (Truex) was doing a really good job watching his mirror. I knew it was tough to pass all day but our truck had been so good we didn't have to do it until we got to him. I kept trying to work down and he kept blocking my air down and down and down. Finally I got one run where I could go up in one and two and then got a big run into three."
Top ten finishers of the UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway: Bell, Truex, Gilliland, Enfinger , Friesen, Crafton, Rhodes, Cindric, Sauter, Grala. Playoff contenders Chase Briscoe (11th) and John Hunter Nemecheck (20th) finished outside of the top ten.
Playoff point standings after the UNOH 175: Bell (2100), Sauter (2060), Crafton (2059), Rhodes (2050), Cindric (2043), Grala (2038), Briscoe (2035), Nemechek (2031).
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs continue at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, September 30. (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)