Christian Eckes earned the first victory of his career on Friday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as ThorSport Racing laid claim to the top four finishing positions for the first time in Truck series history.
The part-time driver of the No. 98 Curb Records Toyota captured the checkered flag for the first time in 44 tries, a season after being replaced at Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Winning the race after a caution came out on the final lap, Eckes was at a loss for words.
"This is big, it's been a tough year since last November. Hopefully I proved I can still do this. ... I'm speechless." Eckes said on the FS1 telecast.
Leading only the final four laps following a late-race restart, Eckes edged teammate Ben Rhodes for the win.
Rhodes now leads the points with two races remaining in the Round of 8.
"I'm just happy with the night, we come in from Bristol barely getting in (to the Round of 8), and now I hear that we're the points leader. ... I thought I could challenge him (Eckes), I needed one more corner before that yellow came out and maybe I [could have challenged] him for the win."
Playoff-driver Matt Crafton came home third, ahead of veteran teammate Johnny Sauter; Crafton currently holds the final transfer spot into the Championship Four by five points over Sheldon Creed.
Creed now finds himself in a precarious position following a dominant opening round of the Playoffs, as he was involved in a fiery crash about halfway through the race. Creed's GMS Racing teammate Tyler Ankrum got loose coming off of turn two and collected another Playoff driver -- Chandler Smith -- sending him down the racetrack in front of Creed. Creed was unable to avoid Smith and slammed into his rear, setting his truck ablaze and Smith into the air; both drivers were OK.
Rounding out the top-five was Todd Gilliland, who won Stage Two and led a race-high 66 laps, but was shuffled back on the final restart by the ThorSport foursome.
Championship-favorite John Hunter Nemechek won Stage One and looked to have the truck to beat, but was hampered by an ill-performing engine for much of the night. Though he maintains a 28-point advantage on the cutline, he finished 33rd.
Playoff-driver Zane Smith also experienced issues on the evening as he cut a tire and tore the left-rear of his truck, necessitating a battery replacement; he finished multiple laps down in 29th.
Another playoff-driver -- Niece Motorsports' Carson Hocevar -- was on his way to a top-10 finish before developing a loose-wheel and spinning out just before reaching pit road. NASCAR ruled that it was intentional and held him on pit road for a lap, resulting in a 22nd-place finish.
Stewart Friesen, Grant Enfinger, Austin Wayne Self, Ryan Truex and Austin Hill rounded out the top-10.
Points standings above/below the cutline: Rhodes (+34), Nemechek (+28), Friesen (+9), Crafton (+5), Creed (-5), Hocevar (-16), Zane Smith (-19), Chandler Smith (-24).
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season continues next Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway. Coverage of the Chevrolet Silverado 250 begins at 1 p.m. ET on FS1.
Kyle Larson continued his dominant 2021 campaign, capturing the checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time in his career. The driver of the No. 5 Valvoline Chevrolet earned his sixth win of the season, and 12th career win in the final race of the Round of 16.
Leading a race-high 175 laps, Larson's race-winning pass was anything but easy, as he had to maneuver around 21-year veteran Kevin Harvick, who led 71 laps on the night. Harvick was stuck behind Larson's teammate Chase Elliott, who Harvick had made contact with about 30 laps prior while battling for the lead, resulting in a cut tire for the reigning Cup champion, putting him multiple laps down.
Using a slide-job to complete the pass with four laps to go, Larson won the race by a margin of .227 seconds.
"That was an awesome race, it was so cool to be able to race for the win. Obviously Harvick and Chase got together and Chase was upset, and kind of held him up," Larson said on the NBCSN telecast. "It got Harvick having to move around, and use his tires up off the bottom (of the track) and I started to get some diamonds working off (turns) one and two, and just got a big run and decided to pull the trigger and slide him," he added.
Harvick was able to hold on for a second-place finish, and was followed by William Byron -- who made the Round of 12 by two points -- in third, Ryan Blaney in fourth and Alex Bowman in fifth.
Elliott and Harvick approached each other on pit road after the race, as frustrations boiled over. With boos from the crowd raining down on him, Harvick shared his perspective:
"I just told him, you know, that it was kind of a chicken [expletive] move that he did there at the end," Harvick said. "We were racing for the frickin' win at Bristol, we're three-wide in the middle and he throws a temper tantrum. I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard, and then he pulls up in front of me and just sits there until I lose the whole lead. ... I'm ready to rip somebody's frickin' head off."
Said Elliott, who led 129 laps on the evening: "It's something he does all the time, he runs into your left side constantly at other tracks, and sometimes it does cut down your left side, and other times it doesn't. He did it to me at Darlington a few weeks ago because he was tired of racing with me. Whether he did it on purpose, it doesn't matter -- at some point you've got to draw the line. I don't care who he is or how long he's been doing it, I'm gonna stand up for myself and my team and we'll go on down the road."
The drivers later continued their discussion in the No. 9 hauler in the garage area, as they hope to settle their feud before the Round of 12 begins next weekend.
Rounding out the top-10 were Brad Keselowski in sixth, Martin Truex Jr. in seventh, Erik Jones in eighth, Denny Hamlin in ninth and Matt DiBenedetto in 10th.
Playoff driver Aric Almirola recovered to finish 18th after an oil line leaking issue during the first third of the race, but was ultimately eliminated from the Playoffs by just two points.
The same can be said for Richard Childress Racing driver Tyler Reddick, as a loose lugnut forced him back to pit road about halfway through the race; although he was able to rebound for a 12th-place finish, he also finished two points below the cutline.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch (-6) and Front Row Motorsports' Michael McDowell (-49) were also eliminated.
Advancing to the Round of 12 (points above/below the cutline): Larson (+46), Truex Jr. (+16), Blaney (+11), Hamlin (+11), Kyle Busch (+9), Elliott (+8), Bowman (+2), Byron (+1), Joey Logano (-1), Keselowski (-6), Christopher Bell (-9) and Harvick (-12).
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs continue next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Coverage of the South Point 400 begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
The continuing journey of the Cup Series season saw its regular-season conclude last Saturday night on the high banks of Daytona. There, Ryan Blaney captured the checkered flag for the second week in a row -- his third victory of the season -- giving him a wave of momentum heading into the Playoffs, as he now sits second on the grid with 24 Playoff points, holding the tiebreaker over Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle Larson put an exclamation point on a career-best regular-season, leaving Daytona with the regular-season championship and the 15 Playoff points that come with it. Couple that with his series-high five race wins and 12 stage wins, and Larson has a healthy lead on the competition with 52 Playoff points (+47 to the cutline).
His fiercest foe throughout the first 26 races was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, though Hamlin didn't win a race during the regular-season. As a result, Hamlin fell from second in points to seventh with the reset, while his 15 Playoff points leave him only 10 points above the cutline.
Hamlin and those around him are on a fairly level playing field, though, as the 11 drivers ranked sixth through 16th are separated by just 13 points.
Here is how I see the postseason playing out:
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet:
Larson simply dominated the regular-season, amassing five wins, 1,566 laps led (745 more than his closest competitor, Hamlin), and the regular-season championship. The fastest car virtually every weekend, things would have to take a drastic turn for Larson to miss the Championship Four. That said, he hasn't yet made the Championship Four in his four Playoff appearances.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota:
Though mired in seventh on the grid, Hamlin has been the second-best car on track this season. 821 laps led, the best average running position (8th) in the field, and best average finish (9.2) will surely keep him alive during the Playoffs. Widely viewed as the best driver to never win a championship, it remains to be seen whether Hamlin can topple that barrier come the finale at Phoenix.
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota:
The Candy Man can, and Kyle Busch has indeed returned to form in 2021. After a disastrous year (for his standards, at least) that saw him earn his only victory in the third-to-last race of the season at Texas, Busch has returned to a steadier place in the series. He has two wins (Kansas and Pocono) to go along with 11 top-fives and 16 top-10's. He ranks fourth on the Playoff grid with 22 Playoff points, and is quite capable of making a deep Playoff run, as he looks to add to his two previous championships (2015 and 2019).
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet:
Dawsonville's native son will look to defend his championship from one year ago, as the 25-year-old embarks on yet another Playoff run -- his sixth in as many years. He enters the 2021 Playoffs in an eerily similar way to last season, once again fifth on the grid with two victories coming into the Playoffs. Last season he had 20 Playoff points, this season, 21. Given that, and the racetracks comprising the Playoffs not having changed from last season, I have a strong feeling that Elliott will have a big prize to race for in Phoenix.
Drivers who can make some noise:
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske No. 12 Ford:
The aforementioned Blaney is in the midst of the best season of his career: three wins, eight top-fives and 14 top-10's netted him 24 Playoff points and a second-place spot on the grid. By virtue of his win last Saturday in Daytona, Blaney begins the 10-race Playoffs on the pole at Darlington on Sunday night. He'll look to ride this current wave of momentum, as he didn't make it past the first round one year ago, and has yet to make the Championship Four in his four previous Playoff appearances.
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet:
The 23-year-old from Charlotte has had notable speed throughout the season -- running the fourth-most fastest laps -- and has amassed 16 top-10's, already a career-best. His lone win (Homestead-Miami) came in the third race of the season, however, and he's only had two top-10's in the past eight races; Byron will have to see a considerable uptick in performance if he hopes to advance far.
Joey Logano, Team Penske No. 22 Ford:
A Championship Four participant four times in the seven-year history of the Playoff format, Logano is always a threat come September. His championship run in 2018 began similar to where he is currently -- only one win heading into the Playoffs -- and he has the fifth-best average running position in the series, so don't count out the 13-year vet.
Martin Truex, Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota:
Though Truex has three victories on the season (Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington), he hasn't won in over three months. On top of that, he has just two top-fives in the last 10 races. The one thing Truex can be confident about? His three victories came on Playoff tracks -- including the host of the finale -- but he has a lot to improve upon in order to make it that far.
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford:
Harvick has had a woeful season by the standards of his team, yet he still owns some formidable numbers that lead me to believe he can make a run during the Playoffs: an average finish of 11.5, the fourth-best in Cup; 5,987 laps run on the season, third-most in the series; 16 top-10's, tied for third-most in the series. He doesn't have a win, but it's not as if he's running that bad. Oh, and he's made the Championship Four five times in seven years ...
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet:
Bowman the Showman has earned three victories in 2021 -- the most in a season in his career. But outside of those wins? He has only three top-fives. To Bowman's credit, he entered last year's Playoffs with similarly mundane numbers and was able to advance to the Round of 8, so perhaps he can turn it on during the next 10 weeks.
Better luck next year:
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske No. 2 Ford:
Keselowski is in the midst of the worst year of his career: one win, seven top-fives and 10 top-10's. His only win came on a Superspeedway (Talladega), and he hasn't had much speed to note. He is also moving on from Team Penske and joining the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing at season's end, so don't expect a fruitful Playoffs from Keselowski and crew.
Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet:
The elder of the Busch brothers, Kurt has had a trying campaign. Though he won in dominating fashion at Atlanta in July, leading 144 laps, he's led a mere 31 laps in the other 25 races. Similar to Keselowski, Busch is moving over to the Michael Jordan-Denny Hamlin 23XI Racing in 2022, as Chip Ganassi Racing sold its assets to upstart Trackhouse Racing at the end of June. Busch certainly has a championship pedigree as the 2004 champion, but it'd be a surprise to see him advance more than one round.
First Four Out:
Tyler Reddick, Richard Childress Racing No. 8 Chevrolet:
Reddick is a Playoff competitor for the first time in his career, beating teammate Austin Dillon by 30 points to earn the final spot. The rightful owner of 13 top-10's, Reddick could advance past the first round, but I would bet against it simply due to inexperience.
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota:
Bell's sole victory in 2021 came in the second race of the season on the Daytona Road Course. With an average finish of 17th, Bell will likely be bounced early, though crew chief Adam Stevens is a two-time champion in his own right.
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford:
Daytona 500 Champion McDowell had the best start to a season a driver could ask for, but he just doesn't have the car to compete in the Playoffs. While in the midst of a banner year for both he and Front Row Motorsports, an average finish of 19.7 simply won't cut it.
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford:
The least-deserving of the Playoff field, Almirola has had a season to forget with one win (a shortened race at New Hampshire), two top-fives and three top-10's, while finishing the regular-season 23rd in traditional points. Situations such as Almirola's give reason to changing the criteria for qualifying for the Playoffs.
A.J. Allmendinger won the inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Sunday. The driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevy notched his second career victory -- and first since 2014 at Watkins Glen -- while also marking the first Cup Series victory for an organization making the jump to full-time competition at NASCAR's highest level next season.
"This is unbelievable, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the way that just played out," Allmendinger said on the NBCSN telecast. "(Team Owner) Matt Kaulig -- he's almost in tears. (Team President) Chris Rice, the Hyperice Chevy, it was so good ... those restarts were just insane. It's great when you have a car owner that just says 'go get me trophies.'"
Allmendinger overcame an early pit road speeding penalty and led only the final two laps after a chaotic turn of events during the latter portion of the race. A caution for debris on lap 73 -- which erased Kyle Larson's mammoth lead over Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott -- brought most everyone to pit lane, while Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto and Indiana-native Chase Briscoe all stayed on the race track.
The ensuing restart saw Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. go for a spin in turn six, a troublesome spot for many drivers throughout the day. No caution was thrown, but debris from a piece of curbing littered the race track, causing a massive mêlée on the following lap.
William Byron, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, tore the splitter off his car and spun through the grass on lap 78 as a result of hitting the treacherous curb, collecting 10 cars in total -- including many inside the top-10.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano pounded the inside tire barrier, but walked away under his own power. The red flag was displayed for 19 minutes, allowing track workers to remove the curbing and clean the racing surface.
But the action was far from over.
After running 10 caution laps, the field restarted on lap 89, only to suffer a similar fate in turn six -- this time seven cars were collected in an accident.
Among them were Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick, who are battling for the 16th and final Playoff spot. Reddick -- the winner of both stages -- finished 21st, while Dillon was relegated to a 31st-place finish. Ultimately, Reddick gained 13 points on his teammate on the day, giving him a 28-point advantage with two races remaining in the regular season.
This time, the red flag was displayed for four minutes before the field took the green flag for its second Overtime attempt on lap 94. On the restart, Hamlin and Briscoe hoped to out-brake each other getting into turn one, but Hamlin pushed wide and caused Briscoe to drive through the grass. Because he took a shortcut, Briscoe was penalized, but not before he spun Hamlin from the lead, ruining both of their days.
Hamlin, though, accepted the apology from Briscoe:
"I agree, it's not on purpose (the penalty confusion), but my team told me that he had a penalty right-away," said Hamlin, who lost the points lead to Larson. "To me, it's obvious -- if you cut the race track and you end-up in the lead, you're going to have a penalty, so, lack of awareness. And then, just race me for a lap. He (Briscoe) just ran right into the back of me. We can't race that way."
Briscoe, who led 13 laps on the day after qualifying second, shared his perspective:
"I don't think he (Hamlin) realized -- I didn't even know I had a penalty until I got to turn 10," said Briscoe. " ... I felt like that was my best opportunity to win the race if I could get under him there, and I knew A.J. (Allmendinger) was going to be quick either way, so I had to try to get going when I could, and I'm sorry that it ruined his day."
Hamlin finished 23rd, while Briscoe was 26th.
Byron earned the seventh pole of his career during qualifying Sunday morning, his third on a road course; he finished 33rd.
Rounding out the top-five were Ryan Blaney, Larson, Elliott and DiBenedetto. Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Justin Haley, Austin Cindric and Ryan Newman completed the top-10.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday with the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The penultimate race of the regular season will air on NBCSN, with coverage beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.
Austin Hill captured the checkered flag on Friday night at the inaugural race at Knoxville Raceway. The win is his first of the season and seventh career victory in the Truck series.
Hill, driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Toyota, gained the lead on the third overtime restart before a caution flag flew, granting him the lead for the fourth and final attempt.
Restarting on the bottom, Hill was able to clear Chandler Smith -- who led a race-high 71 laps -- crossing the stripe 1.207 seconds ahead of the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver.
"Kind of thought we were out of it there for a little bit, had that restart on the outside of (Todd Gilliland) earlier in the race, and I fell all the way back to 20th," Hill said on the FS1 telecast in Victory Lane.
"I didn't think we were going to make it back up -- track position was huge, it was really hard to get around people ... everybody at HRE, they never quit, and that's the thing I love about this group."
Smith, who had control of the race for much of Stage Three after staying out at the conclusion of Stage Two, was disappointed with not maintaining the lead on the second-to-last overtime restart.
"Overall I've just got to thank (Crew Chief) Danny (Stockman) and everybody on this No. 18 JBL Toyota Tundra team ... we needed some track position, led all those laps, and I don't think the call was right to be honest with you that they (NASCAR) made, but it is what it is."
The other dominant truck on the night was that of Front Row Motorsports driver Todd Gilliland, who led 61 laps and finished fourth for his sixth top-ten in a row.
Pole-sitter Derek Kraus -- by virtue of the heat races prior to the "main event" -- won both stages and rebounded to finish fifth after a spin on Lap 106.
Joining him on the front row at the start of the race was GMS Racing's Tyler Ankrum, who fell-back to a 17th-place finish.
Jessica Friesen made her Truck series debut -- after getting rained-out of her first opportunity at the Bristol dirt race in March -- but was caught-up in multiple wrecks and finished 26th -- one spot ahead of husband Stewart Friesen.
Points leader John Hunter Nemechek rallied to finish 11th after starting the race from 37th place as the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports team had to go to a backup car after a crash in practice Thursday.
The race featured 14 cautions for 80 yellow-flag laps, and ran 29 laps over the scheduled 150-lap distance.
Only one race remains in the Truck series regular season, with drivers Kraus (-40 points), Ankrum (-44) and Johnny Sauter (-51) on the outside looking in. Carson Hocevar (+61 points), Stewart Friesen (+53) and Smith (+40) are the last three drivers in the Playoffs.
Those drivers will have nearly a full month to ponder their respective fates, as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular season finale won't take place until Saturday, Aug. 7, with the United Rentals 176 at Watkins Glen International. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on FS1.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 54 M&M's Ice Cream Toyota, led only the final five laps but cruised to a 3.522-second victory over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Hemric on Saturday at Road America.
The win is Busch's fourth in four tries in 2021, win No. 101 of his career, and his first career victory at Road America -- in his first start at the 4.048-mile facility.
Busch's teammate Ty Gibbs -- running a fifth entry for the JGR stable on Saturday -- stalled in turn six on lap 36 as his transmission wouldn't shift, bringing out a yellow flag. Busch was among those who pitted for his final set of tires under the caution.
"Obviously tires, that was the saving grace for us," Busch said on the NBC telecast after climbing out of his Toyota Supra in the turn five burnout zone. "We had tires left over, the (No.) 16 (of A.J. Allmendinger) didn't. When we came and put those tires on, I wasn't sure we were going to be able to get through that many cars."
It wasn't all-too easy for Busch, however, as Myatt Snider got loose and spun after making contact with Harrison Burton on the lap 38 restart, setting about a chain-reaction crash involving nine cars -- Busch being one of them.
"I don't know what happened on (those) last couple restarts, just a melee on the start going down the straightaway, I couldn't really see what was happening, but ... thanks to M&M's of course, (Crew Chief) Mark McFarland, the ARCA team -- they came and helped me this weekend -- and (Crew Chief) Chris Gayle, all the Xfinity Series shop, all those guys and girls that help prepare all these cars."
Also involved in the lap 38 crash was Austin Cindric, who looked to have the dominant car on the day, and Justin Allgaier; their damage necessitated coming to pit road, effectively ending their days.
Cindric rebounded for an eighth-place finish, while Allgaier finished 12th.
Stages One and Two were won by Allmendinger, who rebounded to finish fourth after his jackman went over the wall too soon on the teams' pit stop at the conclusion of Stage Two, forcing them to the rear of the field.
Rounding out the top-five were Hemric, Michael Annett, Allmendinger and Harrison Burton.
Completing the top-10 were Kevin Harvick (in the No. 99 for B.J. McLeod Motorsports) in sixth, Riley Herbst in seventh, Austin Cindric in eighth, Noah Gragson in ninth and Justin Haley in 10th.
Cindric maintains the lead in the series standings by 89 points over Allmendinger.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series season continues next Saturday, July 10, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the Credit Karma Money 250. Coverage begins at 3:30 pm ET on NBCSN.