Race Weekend Central

Tracking the Trucks: Corey Heim, TRICON Make Statement at COTA

In a Nutshell

Corey Heim had almost complete control from start to finish at Circuit of the Americas, winning his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race of the season on Saturday (March 23).

Heim led 31 laps, almost two-thirds of the total race distance. Heim had to fend off teammate Taylor Gray to take the win in a late overtime shootout. It’s the first 1-2 finish in TRICON Garage’s history. It comes amid a banner day for TRICON that saw all five of its trucks finish in the top 10.

See also
Corey Heim Snags COTA Truck Win

While it was mostly smooth sailing for Heim and his TRICON teammates, several drivers had up-and-down days that produced mixed results at the checkered flag. With stage cautions returning, mixed strategies saw teams revert to flipping the stages, a common occurrence on road courses since stages were introduced in 2017.

The Top Truckers at Circuit of the Americas

Winner, Stage 2 Winner, Most Laps Led (31 of 46 laps): Corey Heim
Polesitter, Rookie of the Race: Connor Zilisch
Stage 1 Winner: Nick Sanchez

Top Storylines of the Race

  • Ben Rhodes and Thad Moffitt were unable to make qualifying runs due to mechanical issues. Rhodes’ No. 99 suffered a shock issue in practice, while Moffitt’s No. 46 had a power steering issue. They started 34th and 35th as a result. Rhodes rebounded to finish seventh, but Moffitt ended outside the top 30, seven laps off the pace.
  • Ty Dillon finally had a positive result to his season by finishing 11th. Even better he scored a stage point in stage one after he finished 10th. Aside from a 14th-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Dillon previously hadn’t finished any other races inside the top 15.
  • Surprisingly, only one full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver competed in the race. Ross Chastain made his first start of the season behind the wheel of Niece Motorsports’ No. 45. He made an impression though, as he finished a hard-earned fifth.
  • Among drivers who have continued seasons from hell: Moffitt, Matt Mills, Layne Riggs and Chase Purdy. All four drivers finished outside the top 20, with Purdy nabbing the best finish of the four, though it was only 22nd. Purdy also grabbed some stage points in stage one to help soften the blow.
  • Tyler Ankrum had an uncharacteristically poor finish for the way his season has gone. Despite scoring stage points in both stages, Ankrum finished 25th. The points leader coming into the race, Ankrum had been honored by the city of Austin, Texas, with March 23 being declared Tyler Ankrum Day. Unfortunately, he couldn’t back the honor up with a good finish, a rarity for Ankrum since he joined forces with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing this season.

The Winning Move

It was pretty much a done deal in the closing laps that Heim would win the race, barring some extenuating circumstance. Then on lap 39, Lawless Alan came to a stop on track with rear gear issues, setting up a late restart.

Heim cleared Gray and took off on the restart, and once again looked to have the win in check, until Marco Andretti, in one of the strangest cautions in recent memory, completely lost his rear end housing, and everything with it.

Following a brief red flag for cleanup, Gray had another chance to take the lead from Heim, but Heim was just too strong and pulled away to take the win in overtime.

Championship Rundown

Heim becomes the fourth driver to lock into the playoffs, joining Sanchez, Rajah Caruth and Christian Eckes. Six spots remain with 11 races left in the regular season and several drivers very capable of going to victory lane.

Ankrum’s poor finish also allows Heim to take over the overall points lead in the quest for the regular season championship and the 15 bonus playoff points that come with it. Heim takes a 10-point lead over Ty Majeski, who also leapfrogged Ankrum. The No. 18 sits third, one point behind Majeski and 11 behind Heim.

Majeski is the highest driver in the standings without a win, and has already built a 77 point lead over 11th place. Ankrum also holds a one-plus-race cushion with a 76-point gap. Gray is next with a 59-point margin, one point shy of a full race.

At the 10th-place cutoff, Tanner Gray takes over the last spot from Bret Holmes, who drops to 12th. The elder Gray leads Rhodes for the final playoff spot by just a single point.

See also
Connor Zilisch Overcomes Early Miscues, Penalties to Finish 4th in Truck Debut

Rookie Report

Yeah, this was automatic from the moment the entry list came out.

Zilisch entered this race with two IMSA class wins in both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He continued his blistering pace by entering COTA for his Truck debut and nearly setting the pace in practice, before winning his first pole in his first race with a track record nearly two seconds faster than the previous record.

Zilisch found himself in trouble several times throughout the race, including overdriving turn 1, falling a lap down due to a sway bar issue, spinning and serving two pass-through penalties.

And yet he still came back to top the rookies and finish fourth after a late pit call? Yeah, this was never a question. Zilisch easily wins Rookie of the Race.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t shoutout Jack Hawksworth, who finished sixth, led a lap, and scored stage points in stage two, all in his Truck debut. Easily Rookie of the Race-worthy if a generational talent in Zilisch hadn’t competed in the same race.

No. 1 – Jack Hawksworth (sixth)
No. 04 – Marco Andretti (31st)
No. 7 – Connor Zilisch (fourth)
No. 12 – Dale Quarterley (26th)
No. 20 – Vicente Salas (35th)
No. 22 – Carter Fartuch (21st)
No. 38 – Layne Riggs (27th)
No. 46 – Thad Moffitt (32nd)

The No. 66 of Conner Jones was not entered for this race. It is the second of nine races Jones is currently scheduled to miss, despite competing for Rookie of the Year this season. His next scheduled start is Texas Motor Speedway on April 12.

One Big Takeaway

Has the Taylor Gray of old returned?

As a competitor in the ARCA Menards Series and its regional branches, Gray was a regular contender up front, winning races in the main, East and West series. Though he never won the championship, it was clear he would be a part of the future of NASCAR.

His part-time schedule with TRICON in 2021 and 2022 even hinted at what he was capable of, scoring two top 10s and coming close to winning at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2022 before a late spin.

But 2023 was not a season that Gray had hoped for. Though he managed three top fives and six top 10s, he missed the first three races of the season due to age restrictions and had pretty much no luck outside of that, finishing a less-than-desired 15th in points.

2024 is a whole different beast for Gray, in the best way possible.

Gray has four straight top 10s, three of which are top fives, matching his 2023 total in top fives. He likely would’ve had five straight to open the season if it weren’t for his final lap tumble at Daytona International Speedway while running second.

Gray’s finishes since Daytona have been fourth, fourth, seventh and now second at COTA. HIs runner-up at COTA was not without adversity, as he was one of many penalized for cutting the esses.

It’s not far-fetched to predict that Gray will visit victory lane this season. He’s up to speed this year and appears to have more confidence this year. His finishes only give him more confidence and momentum.

See also
Bringing the Heat: Taylor Gray Flips Into the Inferno

Plus, he also gets some NASCAR Xfinity Series starts with Joe Gibbs Racing this year to further prove himself.

Heim is clearly the flagship driver at TRICON right now, but Gray has the potential to match, or even overtake him has TRICON’s No. 1 driver. His brother Tanner had the opportunity for years, but it appears Taylor might be the better Gray at this point.

Talkin’ Truckers

Hear from Heim, Taylor Gray, Majeski, Hawksworth, Dean Thompson and Timmy Hill after the race:

“Straight chaos, start to finish.” – Zilisch recaps his wild day:

“I haven’t been able to fight yet this season and it’s getting a little frustrating.” – Andretti details what led to his entire rear end housing falling off:

Paint Scheme of the Race

Hawksworth didn’t win Rookie of the Race, but he does get Paint Scheme of the Race as a consolation.

Mobil 1 has hit it out of the park with its paint schemes this season across all three of NASCAR’s premier series (just look at Kamui Kobayashi‘s No. 50 Cup ride this weekend), and this one was no different.

Christopher Bell ran the same paint scheme in his one-off in TRICON’s No. 1 back at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and both he and Hawksworth drove to very respectable finishes.

For Hawksworth, it was arguably more impressive as it was his Truck debut. A sixth-place finish ain’t bad for a newbie, and he did it in a clean looking ride.

Next Stop

Off to the Paper Clip.

The Truck Series will have another off-week before it makes its first of two trips to Martinsville Speedway on April 5. Fittingly, Heim is the defending winner of the race.

Coverage for the Long John’s Silver’s 200 begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, April 5. FOX Sports 1 will once again carry the television broadcast, while MRN has the radio coverage.

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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