AVONDALE, Ariz. — Well, that just happened.
The good in having one race decide a champion is that thrilling battles and great racing are abundant when one event is for all the marbles.
The bad in having one race decide a champion is that nine months of work and 30-plus race weekends are all dictated by the results of that one race.
The ugly in having one race decide a champion is that mistakes, retaliations, cautions and events out of the Championship 4’s control can decide the winner of NASCAR’s grand prize.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’ 2023 finale on Nov. 3 was ugly. Ugly, ugly, UGLY.
It didn’t start that way. In fact, the first 120 laps were everything that a championship finale should be. There was solid racing in the first two stages and split pit strategy at the start of the final stage. Pit strategy that had bunched up all four contenders with just under 40 laps to go.
Carson Hocevar had the advantage at the start of the final stage as he did not pit under the stage two caution while Corey Heim, Ben Rhodes and Grant Enfinger did. Heim — who won the pole and had led 47 laps up to that point — began to close in on Hocevar. The two battled for position with 30 laps to go and Heim eventually got by.
That’s when everything unraveled.
Hocevar got into the back of Heim and derailed his race. Moments like this perfectly encapsulate the risks of crowning the champion with one race. In a full season championship or even a 10-race championship, such a spin isn’t the end of the world for a team. But when everything comes down to 150 laps, it is the end of the world.
Heim looked to have the fastest truck of the four and just one spin ended his season. It had to be a tough pill for swallow for Heim, especially when he would have won a full-season championship by more than two entire races despite missing a race of his own.
Hocevar was visibly shaken up on the radio after the incident, and it showed as he quickly dropped out of the top 15 on older tires for the ensuing restart.
With 10 laps to go, the race was shaping up to be a championship battle between Enfinger in third and Rhodes in fourth. Heim had miraculously made his way up to sixth, while Hocevar had also returned to the top 10. That said, both Heim and Hocevar were out of the race unless a caution came out.
The laps ticked down and with half a dozen to go, it looked like Enfinger had the title wrapped up — barring any caution — in GMS Racing’s final race. But oh boy, did a caution come out.
Heim retaliated against Hocevar with just three laps to go. He didn’t admit to it after the race — and he wouldn’t admit in order to avoid a penalty — but it was clear as day to everyone watching.
I don’t blame Heim for retaliating. Even if the contact with Hocevar was an accident, it ruined his season. He had a right to be mad.
With what do I take issue? The fact that the way in which Heim retaliated ultimately turned the race and the championship battle upside down.
Hocevar wasn’t going to win the title without a caution — they were both in the back half of the top 10. If Heim really wanted to get payback, all he had to do was wait three more circuits and spin Hocevar on the cooldown lap. He also could’ve talked to Hocevar after the race and expressed his displeasure. He could’ve thrown hands if he wanted to.
He could’ve done any number of things than what actually happened, because Heim’s retaliation set off a chain of events that determined why one guy ended up with the championship and the other guy didn’t.
Rhodes didn’t have the truck to catch Enfinger without a yellow. But the retaliation provided him with the break he needed, and Enfinger now had to face a restart in order to claim the hardware.
The race went to not one, not two, not three but four overtimes. A race scheduled for 150 laps ended on lap 179. Every additional caution and wreck added to the absurdity and it was an absolutely embarrassing display of ineptitude in what is supposed to be the Truck Series’ marquee event.
Overtime attempt No. 1: Derek Kraus wrecks out. Meanwhile, Enfinger received damage on the restart and dropped from third to outside the top 20 after a pit stop.
Overtime attempt No. 2: Zane Smith (who would have won the race if not for the Hocevar-Heim incident) misses a shift on the restart. Rhodes has nowhere to avoid and plows into the back of Smith’s truck.
Rhodes stayed on the racetrack in sixth, but his No. 99 truck suffered significant right-front damage as a result of the contact.
After the Big One on overtime No. 3, the field cleanly made it to the final lap on overtime attempt No. 4. Well, almost. Tyler Ankrum pounded the wall heading to the white flag, but NASCAR race control kept the race green in what I can only imagine was an attempt to get this all over with.
Enfinger made a valiant, hard charge through the field on fresh tires in the final two laps, but it was too little, too late. The driver and team that looked poised to win the title before the chaos had to helplessly watch as Rhodes took the checkered flag right in front of them in a devastating defeat for GMS’ last hurrah.
How did Enfinger react? While frustrated, he kept his cool in the post-race press conference that he did with Heim sitting right next to him.
But sometimes, a picture tells a thousand words.
Plenty of drivers and crew chiefs in the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series offered their takes on the events of the Truck race. Josh Berry perhaps put it best: “What a disaster.”
There’s now been 10 seasons of NASCAR’s elimination playoff format. And while the season finales have ranged from tame to exciting to chaotic between all three series, no finale has ever come close to what happened tonight.
I’ll end this piece by posing one question for everyone else: is this really the way to decide a champion?
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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