In an event dominated by Christian Eckes, Corey Heim captured the final spotlight and punched his ticket to this year’s Championship 4 round after emerging late to win the UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Thursday, September 14.
The 21-year-old Heim from Marietta, Georgia, led the final six of 200-scheduled laps in an event where he was one of eight Playoff competitors vying for both a victory and an early automatic spot to race for this year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship at Phoenix Raceway in early November. Taking the green flag in 11th place, Heim methodically carved his way to the front and managed to secure stage points during both stage break periods.
Then after restarting alongside dominant pole-sitter and Playoff rival Christian Eckes at the start of the final stage period with 80 laps remaining, Heim spent the majority of the final 80-lap run to the finish trailing Eckes. He then capitalized on Eckes being marred in lapped traffic to overtake him for the lead with six laps remaining. From there, Heim managed to keep his No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota Tundra TRD Pro in front and claim the checkered flag over a hard-charging Eckes to win for the third time in 2023 and become the first Playoff competitor to be guaranteed a championship-contending spot for this year’s finale due to occur less than two months from now.
With on-track qualifying that determined the starting lineup occurring on Thursday, Playoff contender Christian Eckes, who won last weekend’s event at Kansas Speedway, started on pole position after posting a pole-winning lap at 127.064 mph in 15.101 seconds. Joining him on the front row was Playoff contender Carson Hocevar, who posted the second-best qualifying lap at 126.813 mph in 15.131 seconds.
Prior to the event, Bayley Currey, Playoff contender Nick Sanchez, Kaden Honeycutt, Stewart Friesen and Parker Kligerman dropped to the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments made to their respective trucks.
When the green flag waved and the race started, Christian Eckes, who started on the outside lane, quickly transitioned to the inside lane in front of Carson Hocevar through the first two turns as Ty Majeski challenged Hocevar for the runner-up spot from the outside lane. With the field navigating its way around the Bristol circuit while jostling for early positions, Eckes proceeded to lead the first lap in his No. 19 Gates Hydraulics Chevrolet Silverado RST.
Through the second to fifth lap, a majority of the front-runners migrated to the inside lane and in a single-file line as Eckes retained the lead by three-tenths of a second over Hocevar and Majeski while Chase Purdy, Tanner Gray and rookie Rajah Caruth were in the top six. Behind, Zane Smith overtook rookie Taylor Gray for seventh while Jack Wood was running in ninth ahead of William Sawalich, Corey Heim and Grant Enfinger as Ben Rhodes was mired in 14th in between Jake Drew and Hailie Deegan.
Through the first 10 scheduled laps, Eckes was leading by more than a second over Majeski followed by Hocevar, Purdy and Caruth while Tanner Gray, Zane Smith, Taylor Gray, Wood and Sawalich were running in the top 10. Behind, Heim was in 11th ahead of Enfinger, Jake Drew, Rhodes and Matt DiBenedetto while rookie Daniel Dye, Deegan, Matt Crafton, Dean Thompson and Tyler Ankrum occupied the top 20. Meanwhile, Nick Sanchez was mired in 31st while battling Greg Van Alst for position and trying to navigate his way to the front without losing a lap.
Four laps later, the first caution of the event flew when Jack Wood, who was running ninth, spun and wrecked against the Turn 3 outside wall before his No. 51 Rowdy Manufacturing Chevrolet Silverado RST then spun back down to the track and was clipped by Dean Thompson’s No. 5 Thompson Pipe Group Toyota Tundra TRD Pro as both sustained significant damage to their vehicles and were eliminated from contention. During the caution period, some including Kligerman and Sanchez pitted while rest led by Eckes remained on the track.
When the race restarted under green on Lap 24, Eckes rocketed ahead and retained the lead over Majeski and Hocevar as the field jostled for positions amid two lanes through the first two turns. With Eckes leading and slowly starting to cruise away from the field, Purdy was in fourth ahead of Caruth, Zane Smith, Taylor Gray and Heim while Tanner Gray, Enfinger and Rhodes were mired in the top 11. Amid the battles, Eckes was leading by more than a second over Hocevar and Majeski by the Lap 30 mark.
At the Lap 40 mark, Eckes continued to lead by more than a second over Hocevar followed by Majeski, Purdy and Zane Smith while Caruth, Taylor Gray, Heim, Tanner Gray, Enfinger and Rhodes trailed in the top 11. Meanwhile, Nick Sanchez was still mired towards the rear of the field in 26th behind Daniel Dye.
Ten laps later, Eckes, despite being mired within lapped traffic, continued to lead by two-tenths of a second over Hocevar with third-place Majeski trailing by half a second as the latter two tried to keep pace and pressure Eckes for the top spot.
When the first stage concluded on Lap 55, Eckes captured his fifth Truck stage victory of the 2023 season. Hocevar settled in second followed by Majeski, Purdy and Zane Smith while Caruth, Taylor Gray, Heim, Tanner Gray and Rhodes were scored in the top 10. By then, Enfinger and Sanchez were the only two Playoff contenders to not score the first round of stage points as they were mired in 11th and 26th, respectively.
Under the stage break, a majority of the field led by Eckes pitted for service while the rest led by Playoff contender Zane Smith and including Sanchez, newcomer Carson Kvapil and Bayley Currey remained on the track.
The second stage started on Lap 66 as Zane Smith and Kvapil occupied the front row. At the start, Zane Smith rocketed his No. 38 Speedco Ford F-150 away with the lead from the outside lane while Kvapil, who was piloting the No. 7 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Silverado RST for Spire Motorsports in his series’ debut, spun the tires and stacked up the inside lane. With Kvapil briefly losing pace, Sanchez navigated his No. 2 Gainbridge Chevrolet Silverado RST into the runner-up spot followed by Eckes, the first competitor on four fresh tires, while Kvapil settled in fourth in front of Majeski. As the field behind jostled for positions, Zane Smith maintained the lead by three-tenths of a second over Sanchez by the Lap 70 mark. The caution, however, returned by Lap 74 when Greg Van Alst, who was running towards the rear of the field, spun in Turn 2.
During the following restart on Lap 80, Zane Smith retained the lead after gaining another strong launch from the outside lane while Sanchez and Eckes battled dead even for the runner-up spot before Eckes prevailed during the proceeding lap. Behind, Majeski moved up to fourth ahead of Kvapil while Heim, Enfinger, Taylor Gray, Hocevar and Purdy were in the top 10 ahead of Rhodes. Amid the battles, Eckes started to challenge Zane Smith for the lead as he was trailing by a tenth of a second.
By Lap 90, the top-eight Playoff contenders were running in the top 11 on the track as Zane Smith continued to lead by a tenth of a second over Eckes followed by Sanchez, Majeski and Heim while Kvapil, Enfinger, Taylor Gray, Hocevar, Purdy and Rhodes followed suit, with Kvapil, Gray and Purdy being the top non-Playoff contenders running towards the front.
At the halfway mark on Lap 100, Zane Smith retained the lead ahead of Eckes while Sanchez, Majeski and Heim remained in the top five. By then, Rhodes was overtaken by Caruth for 11th while Enfinger and Hocevar were in seventh and ninth. By then, Matt DiBenedetto and Matt Crafton, both of whom were coming off being eliminated from the Playoffs, were in 15th and 16th while Sawalich and Jake Garcia were in 13th and 14th, respectively. In addition, Kligerman, Stewart Friesen, Tyler Ankrum, Connor Jones and Deegan were battling within the top 20.
Five laps later, Eckes overtook Zane Smith, who was mired behind the lapped competitor of Spencer Boyd, for the lead. Shortly after and with more lead lap and Playoff contenders trying to navigate around Boyd, Majeski, who was running fourth, fell off the pace after he made contact with Heim that got Majeski loose and with a flat right-front tire to the No. 98 Road Ranger Ford F-150. Despite plummeting in the leaderboard as the laps in the second stage dwindled, Majeski continued to run on the track and the event remained under green flag conditions.
When the second stage concluded on Lap 110, Eckes cruised to his sixth Truck stage victory of the 2023 season and second of the night. Zane Smith settled in second while Sanchez, Heim, Enfinger, Taylor Gray, Hocevar, Kvapil, Caruth and Rhodes were scored in the top 10. By then, Majeski was mired in 30th as he was lapped by Eckes, but he would receive the free pass during the stage break period due to being the first competitor mired a lap behind.
During the stage break, some led by Zane Smith pitted for service while the rest led by Eckes remained on the track. Amid the pit stops, Zane Smith was penalized and sent to the rear of the field for pitting outside of his pit box. Taylor Gray also dropped to the rear of the field for speeding on pit road.
With 80 laps remaining, the final stage started as Eckes and Heim occupied the front row. At the start, Eckes took off with the lead from the outside lane and he quickly steered his truck from the outside to the inside lane in front of Heim’s No. 11 Safelite Toyota Tundra TRD Pro through the first two turns. Behind, Enfinger made contact with Taylor Gray to move into third place followed by Hocevar as Gray fell back to fifth in front of Caruth and Rhodes. As the field battled deep within two lanes around the circuit, Eckes stretched his advantage to half a second over Heim and more than a second over third-place Enfinger with 75 laps remaining.
With 60 laps remaining, Eckes continued to lead by more than a second over Heim followed by Enfinger, Hocevar and Taylor Gray while Caruth, Purdy, Rhodes, DiBenedetto and Friesen were running in the top 10. By then, Sanchez, who scrubbed the outside wall at the start of the final stage and was trying to rally his way back to the front after pitting during the stage break, was back in 13th in between Jake Garcia and Crafton while Majeski and Zane Smith were mired in 25th and 27th, respectively.
Ten laps later, Eckes retained the lead by more than a second over Heim while Enfinger, Hocevar and Taylor Gray remained in the top five. By then, the remaining Playoff contenders that included Rhodes, Sanchez, Majeski and Zane Smith were running eighth, 13th, 25th and 26th, respectively.
Down to the final 40 laps of the event, Eckes was now leading by a tenth over Heim while Enfinger, Hocevar and Taylor Gray continued to trail from third to fifth, respectively. Meanwhile, Caruth retained sixth ahead of Purdy, Rhodes, DiBenedetto and Friesen while Sawalich, Garcia, Sanchez, Bayley Currey and Matt Crafton occupied the top 15. By then, Zane Smith, who was still mired within the middle of the pack amid his late pit road penalty, was lapped by Eckes.
With less than 30 laps remaining, Eckes stabilized his advantage by two-tenths of a second over Heim while Enfinger, Hocevar and Taylor Gray remained in the five. By then, Majeski was back in 23rd, but in jeopardy of being lapped by Eckes, while Rhodes and Sanchez were still scored on the lead lap in eighth and 12th. Eckes would proceed to extend the advantage by half a second with less than 20 laps remaining.
Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Eckes stretched his advantage to seven-tenths of a second over Heim while Enfinger, Hocevar and Taylor followed suit in the top five. By then, Rhodes and Sanchez moved up to seventh and 10th while Majeski was mired in 20th. In addition, Zane Smith was back in 24th.
Then with six laps remaining, Eckes hit a roadblock after getting mired behind lapped competitors, among which included Ty Majeski and Tanner Gray. This enabled Heim to make his move beneath Eckes for the lead through Turn 2. With both Eckes and Heim battling dead even through Turn 3, Heim managed to muscle ahead and assume the lead from the inside lane with five laps remaining. During the proceeding laps, Heim, who was approaching the lapped traffic that stalled Eckes’ momentum, retained the lead by three-tenths of a second over Eckes, who kept Heim close within his sights and tried to regain the lost advantage.
When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Heim remained as the leader by two-tenths of a second over Eckes. Despite Eckes gaining a strong run to Heim’s outside through Turns 2 and 3 as Heim was still mired in lapped traffic, Heim managed to keep Eckes behind him through Turns 3 and 4 as he surged ahead and claimed the checkered flag to win by two-tenths of a second over Eckes.
With the victory, Heim, who won the 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular-season championship, scored his third Truck victory of the season, the fifth of his career, first at Bristol and first since winning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July. Above all, Heim officially claimed one of four vacant spots to this year’s Championship 4 round as he and the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota team led by former championship-winning crew chief Scott Zipadelli will contend for the series championship at Phoenix Raceway in November.
“Just huge thank you to TRICON Garage, Toyota Racing, Safelite,” Heim, who celebrated with his team and the fans on the frontstretch, said on FS1. “This is insane. I feel like I’ve given so many [wins] away this year and to win one at the end like that was so special. Unreal. We finally got one back. I was in the zone. I just thought about all the races we’ve given away or I’ve given away. I just focus forward and semi-pass up right where we needed to be. Gosh, it’s so awesome to know we’re in Phoenix and it’s awesome.”
While Heim was left victorious, Eckes was left dejected on pit road after having a secured spot for himself for the finale evaporate in an event where he led a race-high 150 laps and swept both stages. The runner-up result, though, places Eckes in the runner-up spot in the current Playoff standings and 29 points above the top-four cutline with two upcoming Playoff events for him to rally and receive another opportunity to make the cutline by October.
“I just think it’s a little ironic that [Tanner Gray] was three laps down and waited,” Eckes said. “Whatever. Good truck. I got really tight there at the end. It is what it is, but just huge thanks to Gates Hydraulics,…everybody involved. That one stings, for sure.”
Like Eckes, the Bristol night featured strong runs for Enfinger and Hocevar, both of whom finished third and fourth in the final running order. As a result, Hocevar is situated in third place in the Playoff standings and 18 points above the cutline while Enfinger holds possession of the fourth and final spot above the cutline by 14 points.
“I feel like, overall, we executed almost to the best of our ability,” Enfinger said. “I wished we could’ve contended for the win, but overall, I feel like we got all we could get out of our Champion Power Equipment Chevrolet. Lacking a little bit to contend for a win. We always want to fight for a win. We couldn’t do that [tonight], but I think overall, we executed well on pit road. We executed well. Not happy, but satisfied.”
“We just needed to have a good smooth night tonight and get the points we could and not over-extend ourselves or make any mistakes,” Hocevar added. “We did just that. Our Worldwide Express Chevy was really fast. It was just about not making mistakes and going to run the top [lane]. I wished we could’ve widened out a little bit, but fourth [in the Playoff standings] and plus 20, 18 or whatever it is [above the cutline] is good going into Talladega and that was our goal. We’ll just keep clicking away.”
Rookie Taylor Gray, coming off a career-best runner-up result at Kansas Speedway, notched his second top-five finish in recent weeks by finishing fifth and as the highest non-Playoff competitor in the field. Rajah Caruth, Rhodes, Purdy, Sanchez and DiBenedetto completed the top 10 on the track.
For Sanchez, the ninth-place result marks his 10th top-10 finish of the season and a strong rally from starting at the rear of the field. The result, however, leaves him and his No. 2 Rev Racing Chevrolet team 22 points below the top-four cutline. Rhodes, Majeski and Zane Smith join Sanchez in being scored below the cutline following the first Round of 8 event.
“It sucks because I did legitimately think we had pace to contend for a win,” Sanchez said. “Just didn’t work out tonight. It is what it is, but we’ll go to Talladega and try to minimize the damage and try to go win Homestead.”
There were four lead changes for four different leaders. The race featured four cautions for 33 laps. In addition, 20 of 36 starters finished on the lead lap.
1. Corey Heim, six laps led
2. Christian Eckes, 150 laps led, Stage 1 & 2 winner
3. Grant Enfinger
4. Carson Hocevar
5. Taylor Gray
6. Rajah Caruth
7. Ben Rhodes
8. Chase Purdy, one lap led
9. Nick Sanchez
10. Matt DiBenedetto
11. Jake Garcia
12. Carson Kvapil
13. Bayley Currey
14. Stewart Friesen
15. Connor JOnes
16. Matt Crafton
17. Hailie Deegan
18. Parker Kligerman
19. Ty Majeski
20. Jake Drew
21. Daniel Dye, one lap down
22. Colby Howard, one lap down
23. Tyler Ankrum, one lap down
24. Zane Smith, one lap down, 43 laps led
25. Kaden Honeycutt, one lap down
26. Timmy Hill, one lap down
27. Bret Holmes, one lap down
28. Lawless Alan, one lap down
29. Tanner Gray, two laps down
30. William Sawalich, three laps down
31. Spencer Boyd, four laps down
32. Stephen Mallozzi, eight laps down
33. Memphis Villarreal, nine laps down
34. Greg Van Alst – OUT, Brakes
35. Dean Thompson – OUT, Accident
36. Jack Wood – OUT, Accident
*Bold indicates Playoff contenders
1. Corey Heim – Advanced
2. Christian Eckes +29
3. Carson Hocevar +18
4. Grant Enfinger +14
5. Zane Smith -14
6. Ben Rhodes -19
7. Nick Sanchez -22
8. Ty Majeski -22
The second Round of 8 event in the 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs is set to occur at Talladega Superspeedway on September 30, with the event’s air coverage slated to occur at 1 p.m. ET on FS1.