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Carson Hocevar has announced he’ll move up to the NASCAR Cup Series with Spire Motorsports in 2024, graduating from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, where he currently competes with Niece Motorsports.
Hocevar is currently second in points in the Round of 8, trailing only Corey Heim, who locked himself into the Championship 4 after winning at Bristol Motor Speedway. When Hocevar was asked on NASCAR RaceDay this week about who the biggest challenger will be to fight for a championship, Heim was the answer that Hocevar gave.
His answer makes sense, too. Heim won the regular-season championship and has three wins on the season, while arguably being the most consistent of any of the playoff contenders. And that comes after missing a race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway due to an undisclosed illness.
But Heim is by no means a lock for the championship. In fact, anyone of the eight drivers has the ability to win the championship. Making the Championship 4 is the first hurdle, but aside from Heim, one other driver seems to be flying under the radar and could have just as good of a shot to win the title as Heim.
If you only tuned in to the Truck season when the playoffs began, you could certainly make an argument that the 2023 championship runs through Christian Eckes and the No. 19 team. Eckes and his team, McAnally-Hilgemann Racing, have both had career years thus far, winning two races before the playoffs even began.
Eckes’ regular-season stats are kind of all over the board. In the five races between his two wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway, he alternated 30th- and 15th-place finishes. In fact, he had just eight top-10 finishes in 16 regular-season races, ending with an 11th-place finish at Richmond Raceway.
But since the playoffs began, Eckes has put together his best attempt at recreating Tony Stewart’s 2011 Cup playoff run. Up until his 19th-place run at Talladega Superspeedway, Eckes hadn’t had a finish lower than third in the first four playoff races.
He won his third race of the season at Kansas Speedway on an epic three-wide move on the final lap and was poised to win a fourth in dominating fashion at Bristol Motor Speedway before he was held up by a lapped truck, allowing Heim to take the win.
Despite running third in points, Eckes has made a case to be one to watch if he can make it to the Championship 4. The 2019 ARCA Menards Series champion showed at Kansas that he can be aggressive if he needs to be, and if he finds himself with a shot to win at Phoenix, he could try to get there by any means necessary.
One issue that Eckes faces, however, is the fact that he is just nine points above the cut line heading into the final race of the Round of 8 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so the margin for error is very small for the No. 19 team. Compounding the pressure is the fact that one of the drivers below the cut line could very well score a walk-off win into the Championship 4 after his performance last season.
Ty Majeski is no stranger to Game 7 moments. In 2022, he finally broke through for his first career win at Bristol to be the first driver to punch his ticket to the Championship 4. He then backed that up with a win at … Homestead.
Majeski could very well spoil the party for Eckes (and Nick Sanchez, currently the last driver in the Championship 4 as they run in points) by scoring a win at Homestead. And who knows where that leads him in the championship race at Phoenix Raceway? Majeski was in the thick of the championship battle last year before spinning out late in the going and ending his title bid. If he gets in that same situation, he probably won’t make the same mistake.
Majeski hasn’t had a bad season by any means, but 2023 certainly hasn’t given him the breaks he probably feels he’s earned. He has just one win on the season, the opening playoff race at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, but was in contention to win several more. He almost won Gateway but made an aggressive move on leader Zane Smith that resulted in both drivers crashing out. At Richmond, he was the dominant truck but got off on pit strategy thanks to a speeding penalty. He had the lead as late as four laps to go, but Hocevar passed him for the win with much fresher tires.
Majeski was poised to have a solid playoff run based on his win at IRP, but then his No. 98 team got floored with an L2 penalty after The Milwaukee Mile for a tire infraction. For his trouble, Majeski’s crew chief, Joe Shear Jr., was ejected from the track, and Majeski was forced to start Milwaukee from the rear and also make a pass-through penalty on lap one.
Additionally, NASCAR penalized the team 75 driver and owner points as well as five playoff points. Shear was fined $25,000 and was suspended. He will return atop the pit box, coincidentally, at Homestead. Hocevar said that the infraction was a “superpower” that was taken away from the No. 98 team.
Since Milwaukee, Majeski has not finished inside the top 15. However, with his success last year at Homestead and Shear returning to the pit box, Majeski could instantly see his performance go up and sneak his way into the Championship 4. After all, he was in the thick of the regular-season championship hunt with Heim and Smith before the playoffs began. He has the performance – he just needs the luck.
So who really is the title favorite? It’s hard to say. All eight drivers have shown flashes of excellence throughout the season – that’s why they are the last eight drivers eligible for the championship, after all. But Heim seems to be the favorite amongst his competitors, and I’d have to agree.
My pick would be Eckes. His performance in the playoffs has to have brought momentum to the team, and despite his bumpy run at Talladega, he could easily make up for it by winning Homestead.
But that being said, it’s hard to rule out anyone at this point. These are the championship battles that make for a thrilling conclusion to the season.
About the author
Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. He is an editor and co-authors Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer and dabbles in SRX coverage too. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing a master's degree. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training in his free time. He's a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.
You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.
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