Race Weekend Central

Tracking the Trucks: Christian Eckes Finds Redemption in 2-Horse Race at Bristol

In a Nutshell

Christian Eckes held off a late charge from Kyle Busch to win the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, March 16.

Eckes and Busch were the class of the field all night, and the two were never separated by more than a second the entire 250-lap feature. Busch was able to sweep the stages, but Eckes managed to score the victory after starting on pole.

See also
Christian Eckes Earns 1st 2024 Truck Series Win at Bristol

For Eckes, the race was a redemption win after losing last fall’s playoff race at Bristol. He led 150 laps in that race, but was held up by TRICON Garage’s Tanner Gray in lapped traffic, which allowed Gray’s teammate Corey Heim to sneak through for the win with six laps to go.

What made the loss even more bitter is that Eckes won the season finale at Phoenix Raceway; had he won that Bristol race in the Round of 8, he would have been the champion. Instead, he was eliminated from the playoffs two races later.

Eckes had made it clear throughout the day that he was out for vengeance at The Last Great Colosseum, and he managed to win a dogfight with one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history to do so.

With the win, Eckes and McAnally-Hilgemann Racing finally broke the stranglehold Spire Motorsports had to begin the season, as it had won the first three races of the season (if you include its satellite team, Rev Racing, who won at Daytona International Speedway with Nick Sanchez). Chevrolet also has yet to lose this season in the Truck Series, as Bristol makes it four in a row on the year. Chevy has also won the last six straight Truck Series races dating back to last season.

Zane Smith, Matt Crafton and Tyler Ankrum rounded out the top five. For McAnally-Hilgemann Racing, three of its trucks finished top five between Eckes, Smith and Ankrum.

The Top Truckers at Bristol Motor Speedway

Winner, Polesitter, Most Laps Led (144 of 250 laps): Christian Eckes
Stage 1 and 2 Winner: Kyle Busch
Rookie of the Race: Layne RIggs

Top Storylines of the Race

  • Matt Mills‘ season from hell continued with an early crash in the opening laps that put him behind the 8-ball for the rest of the race. He was never able to get back on the lead lap and finished three laps down in 30th. Mills is in the ride that Carson Hocevar drove to four wins and a Championship 4 appearance in 2023, so something may be amiss in that team. Mills has four straight finishes outside the top 25 to start the season, largely due to damage from crashes.
  • In two different instances, Conner Jones attempted to run through drivers. First, he ran square in the back of Mason Maggio after Maggio’s No. 21 was considerably off the pace and held up the No. 66, costing Jones several positions. Then, toward the end of stage two, he was in a fight to stay on the lead lap just in front of leader Busch. For some reason, he ran onto the apron and washed way up the track, knocking Keith McGee out of the way in the process. Busch put him a lap down not even a corner later. Jones and his crew chief were called to the hauler after the race.
  • While there were some spins and contact throughout the night, surprisingly, there were no drivers who outright crashed out of the race. The only one who came close was Ty Majeski, who crashed with teammate Ben Rhodes, but he went behind the wall for mechanical reasons, not crash damage.
  • After the race, Sanchez and Stewart Friesen got into an altercation on pit road. Friesen had gotten turned by Sanchez to bring out the final caution of the night after his No. 52 pinched Sanchez into the wall, leaving the No. 2 with nowhere to go. Video shows that Friesen approached Sanchez and the two exchanged words before Friesen grabbed Sanchez in frustration. However, the two were quickly separated.

The Winning Move

Eckes and Busch combined to lead 249 of the 250 laps (Smith led the other one), so it was going to come down to who had the better final restart. Eckes looked like he had won the battle before Busch and Crafton both somehow managed to track down Eckes and engage in a three-way battle for the lead.

See also
The Matt Crafton of Old Shows Up With Bristol Truck Top 5

For a minute, it looked like Crafton would end his winless streak and take down the two dominant drivers of the evening. That is, until the final caution of the night came out for Friesen and Sanchez’s tangle.

To this point, Busch had always bested Eckes on restarts. If the No. 19 wanted to take down the Cup Series star (and his former Truck Series boss), he had to nail the final restart.

And he did.

With a push from teammate Smith, Eckes was able to surge ahead of Busch and hold him off for the final two dozen laps, while Crafton slipped to fourth. Even with lapped traffic allowing the No. 7 to close, Eckes was able to hold on to earn his sixth career victory. But perhaps more importantly, he got his redemption at Bristol.

The margin of victory was approximately 0.14 seconds, as Busch had closed the gap considerably on the final lap. Had the race gone another lap, we may have been looking at a different driver in victory lane.

Championship Rundown

Eckes joins Sanchez and Rajah Caruth as drivers who have punched their ticket to the playoffs — provided there aren’t more than 10 winners. With 12 races left and seven spaces available, that’s a possibility that cannot be ruled out.

As far as the points go, Ankrum’s fifth-place finish allowed him to extend his point lead after four races. Heim now sits second in points, 17 points behind Ankrum, who is in the midst of a career season.

As far as the 10th-place cutoff goes, Bret Holmes holds strong in the final spot. He only has a five-point cushion between himself and Daniel Dye in the 11th position.

But there’s still a lot of racing left.

Rookie Report

Finally, after three races, Layne Riggs had a race go his way.

The 21-year-old finished 10th, his first finish inside the top 20, let alone the top 10. Even at that, he was almost fighting for a top five around the halfway point of the race. His performance nabs him a well-earned Rookie of the Race.

No. 1 – William Sawalich (21st)
No. 38 – Layne Riggs (10th)
No. 46 – Thad Moffitt (26th)
No. 66 – Conner Jones (19th)
No. 90 – Justin Carroll (36th)

One Big Takeaway From This Race

Whatever package was used for this race, keep it.

This race might have been one of the best Truck Series races in a long time from a pure racing perspective. The race was clean (for a Truck Series race, that is) and for the most part, all the contact on the track was a result of classic Bristol.

Sure, two drivers basically walked away with the race, but those two swapped the lead a couple times and raced really hard for it. There were battles all around the track, and drivers were sawing at the wheel trying to control their trucks.

There were classic short track tempers, lapped traffic plagued anyone and everyone, and there were multiple grooves at the end of the race. Not to mention, the ever-present use of the bumper was in full force.

And all of that happened in the span of just 250 laps.

Maybe it’s the magic of the striped red and white walls that return to Bristol after many years? Because I don’t know about you, but the race we saw screamed classic Bristol to me.

Whatever NASCAR did for this race, please keep it for future races. Not just at Bristol, but throughout the season if at all possible. If more races like that happen, the Truck Series might finally be able to reestablish itself as more than just a series full of dirty racing and disrespectful drivers.

See also
Through the Gears: Bristol Best Bets

Talkin’ Truckers

Eckes (winner) talked about the redemption he earned with the win:

Busch (second) wanted the race to stay green to have a shot:

Smith (third) satisfied with his finish given his part-time schedule:

Crafton (fourth) talks about his best night in what seems like years:

Ankrum (fifth) breaks down the contact between him and Majeski that led to the latter crashing:

Riggs (10th) finally contended with the big dogs for the first time this season:

McGee (32nd) on how Jones raced him in stage two:

Majeski (34th) says his engine issue would have taken him out of the race even if he didn’t wreck:

Paint Scheme of the Race

New sponsor, who dis?

If I had to choose a favorite primary paint scheme for 2024, it would surprisingly be Ankrum’s No. 18 LiUNA! Chevrolet. Call me crazy, but I find the combination of LiUNA orange and MHR’s NAPA blue to oddly go well together.

This week, Ankrum and MHR introduced a new sponsor in Ullico, which debuted this weekend at Bristol — and MHR didn’t miss on this paint scheme design either.

The replacement of the LiUNA! orange with the Ullico red and white didn’t detract anything from this paint scheme. It still stood out beautifully under the lights at Bristol.

Next Stop

The sun is bright, let’s turn left and right … deep in the heart of Texas!

I think that’s how the song goes, right?

The Truck Series will journey to Austin, Texas for its annual trip to Circuit of the Americas next Saturday, March 23. The race is the first of the afternoon as part of another doubleheader with the Xfinity Series.

Smith was the 2022 and 2023 winner of the race, but COTA is not on his four-race truck schedule with MHR, so he will not be able to go for three in a row. However, Front Row Motorsports has not lost a truck race at COTA since it was added to the schedule in 2021 (Todd Gilliland won the 2021 race), so it will attempt to go 4-0 with its third different driver in Riggs.

Coverage for the XPEL 225 at COTA will begin at 1:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 23. FOX Sports 1 will once again carry the television broadcast.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is 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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