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Tracking the Trucks: Chandler Smith Scores 1st Career Win at Bristol Motor Speedway

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In a Nutshell: Chandler Smith scored his first career victory in Thursday night’s (Sept. 16) UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway to win his way into the Camping World Truck Series playoffs Round of 8. The driver of the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota bounced back from an early tire rub and utilized a late-race restart to pounce on dominant driver Sheldon Creed, who ultimately finished 19th.

“God is good, God is so damn good,” an almost speechless Smith said after emerging from his truck. “I’ve really been tested here in the last year or two. Tested my faith and I’ve kept it. This is unbelievable. I can’t thank everyone behind me. Safelite, Toyota, KBM, Kyle Busch (team owner) – everybody, Jack Irving (TRD). This is incredible, I’m speechless right now.”

Grant Enfinger ended up second followed by Smith’s teammate John Hunter Nemechek, who nearly took the lead and the win in the closing laps. Stewart Friesen and Johnny Sauter rounded out the top five.

The Win That Could’ve Been

Creed had the truck to beat hands down and absolutely belonged in victory lane when the checkered flag flew. After leading 189 of 200 laps and pulling away from the field numerous times on multiple restarts, a late-race caution for a six-truck incident that brought out the second red flag of the night set up the restart that allowed Smith to pull alongside Creed and take the lead.

See also
Chandler Smith Wins Truck Series at Bristol, Advances to Playoffs Round of 8

Race Notes:

Round of 8 Field Set

When the Truck Series playoffs opened at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Creed struck first, locking himself into the Round of 8 with a victory, and he’s made a statement throughout this first round with two wins and a dominant run at Bristol. Meanwhile, Nemechek locked himself in on points after a runner-up finish at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago, but that left six spots still up for grabs at Bristol.

Late in the running of the UNOH 200, Matt Crafton and Friesen secured their places in the Round of 8 before the checkered flag flew, leaving just four open positions. Of course, the spots right around the cut line jockeyed throughout the night as varying pit strategies, penalties and on-track drama unfolded, but in the end, it was Chandler Smith who won his way into one of those spots.

Joining those five drivers in the next round will be Ben Rhodes, Zane Smith and rookie Carson Hocevar.

The eight drivers that make up the playoffs now include two rookies (Chandler Smith, Hocevar) and two past champions (Creed and Crafton) along with a trio of championship-winning organizations (ThorSport Racing, GMS Racing, KBM).

The Round of 8 kicks off with back-to-back races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend and Talladega Superspeedway the following week before three weeks off ahead of Martinsville Speedway, which will set the Round of 4 for the upcoming championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Austin Hill and Todd Gilliland Eliminated From Playoffs

The Round of 8 being set for the championship battle also means two drivers were eliminated: Austin Hill and Todd Gilliland.

“I was just trying to get in line and my spotter told me that he was coming and he was there. Kind of went down a little bit to see if I could spook him a little bit and maybe make him lift and I misjudged it,” Hill explained. “I came down too much and then as soon as he got into me, it just takes all the rear stability out of it and off we went. I hate that we tore up all those other race trucks and I hope everybody ended up alright.

“It’s all on me. I let my team down. They brought me a hot rod to Bristol, a place we’re not very good at. We sped on pit road and just choked it, what else do you say. We go on to next year. Don’t know what next year looks like yet, but hopefully, I’m with these guys and I can redeem myself for them and this organization because they deserve better than what they got tonight. We’ll see.”

Talk about dejection in a driver whose championship hopes had just ended. Of course, there are still a handful of races left to try to win but ultimately Hill and the No. 16 team had their eyes on the big prize. It is admirable, however, for Hill to own his mistakes and move forward rather than trying to pawn off the blame on someone else. That’s the kind of attitude that earns respect in this sport.

Meanwhile, Gilliland also sat above the cutoff line for much of the race and was in a decent position if he just stayed out of trouble throughout. But that late race restart after the yellow that took out Hill was ultimately the No. 38 team’s undoing. The shuffle in the running order, combined with Smith’s victory from outside the top eight in the standings put Gilliland on the outside looking in, despite a 10th-place finish in the race itself.

“I was pretty aware [of the points], then that last restart became chaotic,” Gilliland dejectedly told FS1 post-race. “I pretty much knew I needed to beat the No. 99 to be in an OK spot. Honestly, [I] don’t know what happened. They just both slipped by me, the Nos. 21 and 99, so I’m just heartbroken, at a loss for words. I don’t know what to say. We’ve had a good year so to miss it by two points really stings.”

And while Gilliland’s championship battle may be over, once the sting of that disappointment subsides a little, the No. 38 team can look back on what’s been built over the last two seasons, in the middle of a global pandemic that’s turned the sport upside down. Of course, every driver wants to win the title (who doesn’t?) but to build a team from the ground up and to be able to make those people work well enough together to win is no small feat.

Kyle Busch Motorsports Team Orders?

Simply put, Creed dominated and was well on his way to a sweep of the Round of 10 in the playoffs until a late-race restart set up the opportunity for KBM teammates Chandler Smith and Nemechek to pounce and team up against the leader to keep Smith’s playoff hopes alive. Ultimately, the rookie needed a victory to move into the next round of the championship battle, and the yellow that flew with just six laps remaining gave him one more opportunity to restart and move alongside Creed with a chance to take the top spot.

And when the green flag flew with five laps remaining following a short red flag period, he did just that, making contact with Creed, who ended up dropping to a disappointing 19th-place finish. Meanwhile Nemechek moved ahead of Smith before inexplicably dropping back out of the lead and allowing the driver of the No. 18 Toyota to sail to the victory.

The clip above didn’t show the initial drop back from Nemechek but what it did show was that the driver of the No. 4 appeared to have the faster truck and could have easily executed the bump and run on his teammate and taken his sixth win of the 2021 season. Instead, he dropped back to what turned out the be a third-place finish.

As I watched that unfold, I sat there dumbfounded at what I had just witnessed, and there was plenty to unpack. Smith got an incredible restart there, perhaps the best of his young career, and gave himself an incredible opportunity when he pulled alongside Creed, who’d been largely untouchable all night long. There’s simply no denying that, no matter how you want to put it.

But when Nemechek made the three-wide pass for the lead, it looked like he was ready to sail right off to victory lane, leaving Smith on the outside looking in for the next round of the playoffs. Instead, he drove was what essentially the worst corner of his incredible 2021 season and sailed to the high side of the track, opening up the bottom groove for Smith to drive by. And while he made it look believable that he still tried to beat his teammate, I’m not convinced that he didn’t just pull aside to tow the company line and give KBM two trucks in the Round of 8.

Of course, you’ll never have either driver or anyone in the organization admit to anything other than hard racing between teammates. And maybe Nemechek truly did just get loose and slide up the track, however that’s completely uncharacteristic of him and what he’s shown all season. You be the judge based on what he had to say to FOX Sports after the race.

The thing that bothers me about Nemechek’s interview in that case is that if you’ve watched him race for any length of time, you know how passionate he is about this sport and about winning, in particular. His calm demeanor doesn’t at all match the anger that should show for a driver who’s “pissed” about losing his shot at victory lane.

Interestingly enough, Creed apparently thought it seemed a little fishy too.

In the end, unless there were any radio transmissions that make it 100% obvious anything manipulative was at play, regardless of how it looked on the track, nothing will be done about it on NASCAR’s part. And maybe my gut feeling is completely off base, but the Nemechek we saw in those final five laps isn’t the same one we’ve seen throughout the entire 2021 season.

2021 Rookie Report

No. 1 – Hailie Deegan
No. 02 – Kris Wright
No. 18 – Chandler Smith
No. 23 – Chase Purdy
No. 42 – Carson Hocevar

No. of rookies in the race: 5
No. of rookies in the top 10: 2; Chandler Smith, finished first, Carson Hocevar, finished sixth

Rookie of the Race: Chandler Smith

Point Report: Now that the Round of 10 is complete, the points are once again reset ahead of the Round of 8. Nemechek once again enters as the leader, this time with a 24-point advantage over Creed. Rhodes sits second, five markers behind Creed and 10 ahead of Zane Smith, who’s the last driver above the cut line for the Championship 4, which will be set at the conclusion of the next three races.

Fifth through eighth find themselves separated by just five points with Chandler Smith leading the way, followed by Crafton and fellow rookie Hocevar. Friesen is seeded as the eighth and final playoff driver, 49 points behind the leader and eight behind Zane Smith in fourth.

Gilliland and Austin Hill sit ninth and 10th, respectively, separated by just six points, while Enfinger continues to lead the drivers who didn’t make the playoffs by more than 100 markers, despite missing a race this season.

Series regular winners: Ben Rhodes (Daytona, Daytona road course); John Hunter Nemechek (Las Vegas, Richmond, Charlotte, Pocono); Sheldon Creed (Darlington, Gateway, Darlington 2); Todd Gilliland (COTA); Austin Hill (Knoxville, Watkins Glen), Chandler Smith (Bristol)

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Up Next: The Truck Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend for the first race in the Round of 8, which will ultimately end up setting the Championship 4. Coverage for the Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 presented by Westgate Resorts begins Friday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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5 Comments
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Jill P

The KBM shenanigans have been going on all season long. JH Nemechek was gifted stage wins and race wins when his boss was in the races. Why should things change in the playoffs?

Echo

Nascar can’t do a thing about it as long as nothing is said on the radio. lol

Echo

John Henry wasn’t very convincing was he lol What was very obvious, was how he messed up that corner. Kyle would have been very upset if this race didn’t turn out the way it did.

Tom B

Smart play by John Hunter coming in third. It takes some of the spot light off him.
It’s all about the team, man.

DoninAjax

96 laps of the event under caution. The Cup event should finish around midnight. Maybe 3 red flags?

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