The NASCAR Truck Series championship race was nothing short of a fiasco, and it begs the question of whether or not NASCAR really needs the series.
Ben Rhodes won his second NASCAR Truck Series championship with a fifth place finish in the 2023 season finale at Phoenix Raceway last Friday night. But his championship was effectively a sidenote, thanks to the late-race chaos that stole many of the headlines.
The race got off to a relatively uneventful start, without many incidents. The four Championship 4 drivers were spread throughout the top 10 through the first two stages. However, stage three was a different story, with multiple different accidents affecting all of the championship contenders in one way or another.
The first of these incidents happened with 31 laps to go, when title contenders Carson Hocevar and Corey Heim made contact while racing for the top position among the Championship 4. Heim was spun out and effectively knocked out of contention.
However, Heim was able to work his way back through the pack and up into the top 10 as the laps wound down, but he did not have enough time to catch the top two Championship 4 drivers, Rhodes and Grant Enfinger.
But with three laps to go, Heim did catch Hocevar, and the two made more contact, with Hocevar being knocked out of the race altogether.
Heim’s move appeared intentional, despite the fact that he claimed otherwise. Additionally, Enfinger had built up a sizeable gap over Rhodes and looked to be on his way to winning his first championship prior to the caution. Instead, the race went to overtime.
The incident between Hocever and Heim was only the beginning of the late-race chaos that shook up the NASCAR Truck Series championship.
On the ensuing restart, Enfinger and Rhodes found themselves both racing for the championship and race lead in the middle of a four-wide battle that also included Christian Eckes and Zane Smith. In the midst of it all, Enfinger found himself sandwiched in between Rhodes and Eckes and made significant contact with Eckes, cutting his tire.
Things were far from, over as Derek Kraus crashed further back in the pack, bringing out another caution and sending the race to a second overtime. On the ensuing restart, Rhodes found himself in third place, 18 positions ahead of Enfinger after Enfinger came into the pits for tires.
But everything changed after Smith missed a shift, leading to significant contact between him and Rhodes, causing Smith to spin and bring out another caution. Rhodes also received significant nose damage as a result of the contact, but he opted to stay out on the track rather than pitting and potentially losing the championship.
More twists came in the third overtime. There was another wreck on the ensuing restart, and although this accident did not involve any of the three remaining title contenders, it was still a multi-car incident that took out several drivers, including Matt Crafton and Smith for a second time.
Entering the fourth overtime, Rhodes found himself in fourth place, still nine positions ahead of Enfinger. But Enfinger had a fantastic restart and found himself just a few spots behind Rhodes as the field took the white flag, and with two turns remaining, he was right on Rhodes’ bumper.
But it ultimately proved to be too late for Enfinger, and Rhodes held him off by just one spot to capture his second Truck Series title.
Although the race was over, reactions from across the NASCAR community continued to pour in well after the checkered flag flew.
Many wasted no time voicing their displeasure about the conclusion of the race and the lack of respect between drivers. Hocevar was the first to face criticism for his aggressive move on Heim.
Heim also faced backlash for his seemingly intentional wreck that indirectly caused the overtime fiasco — and arguably cost Enfinger a title. Heim did not get away with it either, as NASCAR penalized him 25 points for the move, which was enough to move him behind Hocevar in the final standings.
All in all, the race did not put the Truck Series in the best light, and many had questions regarding what could be done going forward.
Chaotic endings aren’t unfamiliar to the Truck Series. Several other races have ended under similar circumstances, and in many of these cases, a lack of respect between drivers was the culprit. Furthermore, these chaotic endings do not benefit most teams, as many will ultimately leave the track with one or more unnecessarily damaged trucks.
With the Xfinity Series having also seen its fair share of chaotic endings which have left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans, is it really necessary to continue with two different national feeder series?
It’s not a crazy question to ask, and with many NASCAR regional series continuing to grow, there is almost certainly a bridge straight to the Xfinity Series from one of those series — or the ARCA Menards Series.
In recent years, several drivers have outright skipped running a full-time season in either the Truck Series or the Xfinity Series before moving to the Cup Series.
Among these drivers are Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith, who are both set to compete for Spire Motorsports in the Cup Series next year despite having never run full-time in the Xfinity Series.
But that’s just one issue that has begun to plague these two series, as newly minted Xfinity Series champion Cole Custer also made mention of the fact that there are often only a dozen or so cars that are truly capable of winning any given Xfinity Series race.
This trend has also been on display in the Truck series to a certain degree, as only seven different Truck Series “regulars” won a race this season. Four of those drivers won at least three races, accounting for more than half of the season.
Additionally, the trucks used in the Truck Series are significantly different from those used in both the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. Should the Truck Series and Xfinity Series ultimately become one bigger, stronger feeder series to increase the level of competition, increase the preparation for the Cup Series, and allow for a much more exciting racing product each weekend?
The NASCAR Truck Series wouldn’t necessarily have to be shut down for this time happen.
It could instead be repurposed and play a different role in NASCAR, one which was seen in the late 1990s and 2000s.
From the inception of the series in 1995 through the early 2010s, the Truck Series was loaded with veteran drivers, many of whom had been racing in NASCAR for decades. Many of these drivers were proven names who were nearing the ends of their careers, and in some cases, they were able to revive their careers in the series.
Veteran drivers such as Ron Hornaday Jr., Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine, Bobby Hamilton, and Jack Sprague were all fixtures on the Truck Series grid for years. And for some of these drivers, the series allowed them to revive their careers and win championships after their Cup Series opportunities had seemingly fizzled out.
But these drivers are just the tip of the iceberg, and throughout the 2000s, many other veteran drivers filled up a large portion of the field. Of course, plenty of newcomers, including Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch, also helped fill out the grid throughout the years.
This trend hasn’t completely gone away, as drivers such as Crafton and Enfinger have both raced in the Truck Series for over a decade — two decades, in Crafton’s case. But comparatively speaking, the number of veteran drivers racing full-time in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series has dwindled significantly over the past few years.
However, should the Xfinity Series be made the true feeder series for the Cup Series, the Truck Series could again play the role it played for the first dozen or so years of its existence and serve as a series largely centered around veteran drivers. The racing product of both series would benefit from such a change, and there could be fewer chaotic, messy finishes.