In a Nutshell: Johnny Sauter took his second straight win when he beat John Hunter Nemechek to the checkered flag in the Lucas Oil 150 Friday night at Phoenix Raceway. The driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet took advantage of a two-lap shootout after teammates Noah Gragson and Christopher Bell brought out the third red flag on the night to score his first win at the one-mile oval. Cody Coughlin finished a career-best third, while Chase Briscoe and Kaz Grala rounded out the top five.
Who Should Have Won: Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Bell and Gragson were the trucks to beat, leading a combined 145 of 150 laps on Friday night. But following an intense side-by-side battle for the lead, the two collided, taking both trucks out of contention for the win, along with Justin Haley, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The victory should have gone to either one of the KBM teammates, however, Sauter took advantage of their contact and picked up his second win in as many races.
Ben Rhodes’ Title Hopes End With Late-Race Crash
With 21 laps remaining, the race restarted following the third caution on the night, and before the field even made it into Turn 1, Ben Rhodes was turned hard off of the front end of Austin Cindric’s No. 19 Ford. As the No. 27 Toyota shot to the outside wall, it collected teammate Matt Crafton and tore off the front end of the No. 88 Toyota. Meanwhile, Cindric narrowly dodged being clipped by the front end of Rhodes’ truck as it shot up the wall.
Both trucks suffered terminal damage and were out of the race on the spot, and the red flag flew over the field for the significant cleanup that followed.
“We were better than them all night,” Rhodes’ crew chief Eddie Troconis said during the red flag period. “We gave them the chance they were on our bumper, and then took the cheap shot. If they want to go race to Homestead like that, they’re not going to make it lap 1. This is the way they want to race; we raced them clean and we were better than them all year long. We deserve to be in Homestead.
“I believe NASCAR should park him, they should penalize him because he’s going to hurt someone in one of these races. He did it to Kaz Grala in Montreal to get a win. He doesn’t know how to race.”
Excuse me? I understand he’s upset, but Troconis definitely needs to see that replay again. While it’s very clear that contact with Cindric is what sent the No. 27 truck spinning, Rhodes shares his own portion of the blame in this incident. After Cindric got a solid restart on lap 130, he made the move inside Rhodes, who moved to block and ultimately set off the crash that ended his championship hopes.
After far as whether NASCAR needs to penalize Cindric for the incident, it’s not even up for debate. It may have been a cheap shot when Cindric spun Grala in Canada for his lone win this season, but this time around, Rhodes moved to block and ended his own night.
When he emerged from the infield care center, Rhodes was none too pleased with Cindric’s move.
“There’s definitely a time and place to go three-wide. I think that there was still a lot of racing to do,” Rhodes said. “He (Austin Cindric) put me in a bad place and trying to do everything I could to keep the spot, but once you file into Turn 1 we were all going to wreck, so I’m not sure that was the right move on his part.
“It looked like a desperation move to me because there’s so much racing left to do. I guess if I was in his position, I mean I can’t blame him, but it’s definitely not the move I would have liked to see this early in the race. There’s so much to go on. You know, the line in front of me started checking up and I could have done the same thing, but you have to be smart on the restarts, especially when you have what? 70 laps to go still?”
It’s completely understandable that Rhodes was upset; any driver would be in that position. But to be completely unaware of what part of the race he was in is naive, at best.
Meanwhile, Cindric had much the same view of it that the FOX announcers did.
“I had a good run, went down to the inside, Ben went to block and I was there,” Cindric said during the red flag period. “I can’t be pushed around because I know that was our chance to get by him. He was faster than us all night, so I had to hold my line, and unfortunately, with the block, I’m not sure it was the best decision.
“It’s unfortunate. I really hated to have it happen that way,” he continued. “Obviously nothing intentional there. I think you can clearly see I tried to get a run and held my ground, and that’s how it went.”
Rhodes’ teammate Crafton was a man of little words when he exited the infield care center, however, he said plenty.
“I told Ben (Rhodes) the (No.) 19 better not finish Homestead.”
Cindric isn’t exactly making any friends this season on the track, but if Rhodes and Crafton are smart, both will steer clear of any unnecessary contact next weekend. In all likelihood, a week to cool off will be just what both need to cool off before the series takes to Homestead next Friday night.
With all of that said, it still doesn’t take the sting out of being knocked out of the title race, especially for Rhodes, who’s suffered his fair share of bad luck this season. The good news for the No. 27 team is that there’s still one more 2017 race win that’s within reach next weekend before the series goes dormant for winter.
Championship 4 Set for Homestead
When the checkered flag flew over Phoenix Raceway Friday night, the Championship 4 that will run for the 2017 title was set.
Sauter had already locked himself into the final round of the playoffs with his win at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend. Bell and Crafton both punched their tickets by virtue of their finishes in the first and second stages, respectively.
Meanwhile, that left three drivers to fight it out for the fourth and final position. Nemechek entered the weekend, knowing his only hope for making the Championship 4 went straight through Victory Lane. He suffered from tight conditions on the No. 8 Chevrolet in the first stage and struggled with a loose truck during the second stage.
But after making it through three red-flag periods, Nemechek restarted alongside leader Sauter with one last shot at heading to Victory Lane, though it wasn’t meant to be as the No. 8 Chevrolet lacked the speed needed to pull ahead of eventual winner Sauter.
With that said, the battle between Cindric and Rhodes was literally lap-by-lap as the two ran through the ebbs and flows of the race.
Cindric suffered slow pit stop under the second stage break when the right front tire didn’t want to come off of the truck. Discussion on the team radio after the incident indicated the driver of the No. 19 Ford didn’t align his steering wheel straight when he came to a stop, which ultimately resulted in a more than 19-second stop. It happened again when the third caution flew, causing another slow stop.
On the following restart, any doubts about who would end up in the Championship 4 ended when Rhodes was wrecked in the aforementioned incident with Cindric. The 20th-place finish for Rhodes, compared to Cindric’s ninth-place finish left enough of a gap to give Cindric the fourth and final spot in the title race.
Next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Bell, Sauter, Crafton and Cindric will race heads up for the 2017 Truck Series championship. Bell enters as the championship favorite with five wins on the season, but defending champ Sauter has a solid history at the mile-and-a-half oval and a whole lot of momentum on his side.
- With four laps remaining in the second stage, Grant Enfinger, who was running 15th at the time, crashed hard into the outside wall, without warning to the driver from inside the truck. The tire failure caused terminal damage to the No. 98 Toyota and marked only his second DNF of the season. The caution ended the second stage under yellow flag conditions, while Enfinger was credited with a 24th-place finish.
- Jesse Little made his return to the Truck Series for his fourth start this season. He quietly ran inside the top 15 for much of the night until he slid up the track and across Norm Benning’s front end with 35 laps remaining. Though the yellow didn’t fly, Benning had significant front-end damage, and the No. 6 team was unable to make repairs; he ended up 22nd. Meanwhile, Little suffered right side damage from the incident but kept going and ultimately ended up 18th after being involved in the big wreck with 14 laps remaining that took him out, along with Ryan Truex and Dalton Sargeant.
Truck Rookie Report
2017 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 13 Cody Coughlin
No. 18 Noah Gragson
No. 19 Austin Cindric
No. 24 Justin Haley
No. 29 Chase Briscoe
No. 33 Kaz Grala
No. 49 Wendell Chavous
No. 52 Stewart Friesen
No. 98 Grant Enfinger
No. of rookies in the race: 8
No. of rookies to finish in the top 10: 5; Cody Coughlin, finished third; Chase Briscoe, finished fourth; Kaz Grala, finished fifth; Stewart Friesen, finished sixth; Austin Cindric, finished ninth
Rookie of the Race: Coughlin
“It was really intense and we were both doing everything we could to go for the win. It’s a big advantage to be on the outside because you have all the side force and whenever you crowd him like that you take all the air off the side of his truck. I knew that I was playing with fire there and that there was a good possibility that I was going to get us both in trouble. He (Noah Gragson) was doing a really good job down there of hanging onto it and keeping it up – we were just racing really hard and it didn’t work out.
“Everybody that drives a truck or any NASCAR, the aerodynamics are huge. Like I said earlier, you’re at a major advantage whenever you’re on the outside because you can just pinch that guy down and make that guy loose, loose, loose and when they get loose, they lose momentum. You’re playing with fire whenever you do it and that’s the risk you run whenever you run like that and it didn’t work out for me.” Christopher Bell, finished eighth
“I saw them five-wide and I had a huge run. I drove it to the bottom and my truck just wasn’t where it needed to be tonight and I saw an opportunity. They just got all bunched up and I was going to go for it, so I went for it. We were six-wide. I got hooked in the right-rear I think. I tried to stay as low as I can and I tried to stay away from the 8 (John Hunter Nemechek) and I was pretty much along for the ride. It was quite a wreck. I want to thank Phoenix for building good walls because honestly, that didn’t hurt like I thought it was going to. When you get hooked like that, you’re never looking forward to hitting the wall with the left side so thanks to them and NASCAR and everybody. Just sucks. Thanks to my team and everyone – we’ve turned a lot of heads this year and we’ve still got one more to win. We’ll put our heads down and go to Homestead (Miami Speedway).” Ryan Truex, finished 19th
Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Homestead-Miami to decide the 2018 champion next Friday night. Coverage for the Ford EcoBoost 200 begins Friday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1; the race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiruisXM NASCAR Channel 90.