Corey Heim knew when it counted. He led just six laps of the 200 lap UNOH 200 Presented by Ohio Logistics, but they were the final six.
Heim was able to catch up to the bumper of Christian Eckes, who swept both the stages and led 150 laps, as the pair battled through heavy lap traffic, with sixteen cars off the lead lap. And while Eckes negotiated around the No. 15 of Tanner Gray, Heim jumped to his inside and made the move.
“I feel like I’ve given some up,” Heim admitted, “so to win one at the end like that is so special.”
The pass secured him his third win of the season and a guaranteed ticket to the Truck Series championship battle at Phoenix Raceway. But it certainly wasn’t a fluke. He’s finished in the top ten in all of his last thirteen starts.
“I was in the zone,” he described his move. “I just thought about all the races I’ve given away, so I just focused forward and set my pass up right where it needed to be. Tony Hirschman, my spotter, did an awesome job getting me through there.”
“It’s so awesome just to know we’re in Phoenix… gosh, it’s so awesome,” concluded a breathless Heim.
Heim’s move was much less impressive to an unhappy Christian Eckes. He dominated the race but wasn’t able to take home either the checkered flag or the extra Playoffs peace of mind.
Instead, Eckes wasn’t happy with the lapped truck of Tanner Gray. The No. 15 truck was off the pace on the top, limiting Eckes’ run off the corner and ultimately making him vulnerable to Corey Heim. And at least as Eckes saw it, that wasn’t just an unhappy accident.
“I just think it’s a little ironic that the 15 was three laps down and waited, but whatever,” Eckes said. Gray is Heim’s teammate at Tricon Garage.
“Good truck, I got really tight there at the end,” he added. “It is what it is, you know? That one stinks for sure.”
Grant Enfinger finished third. He managed to win in the previous round but lacked consistency, finishing outside the top ten in both other races. A third-place finish is a much better start to his round.
“I feel like overall we executed – I don’t want to say the best of our ability, I feel like maybe I gave up one point coming to the end of that first stage,” Enfinger acknowledged, “but overall I feel like we got all we could out of it.”
“Lacking a little bit to contend for a win,” he added. “We always want to contend for a win – couldn’t do that. But I think overall we executed well on pit road, overall not happy but satisfied.”
Tanner Gray’s brother Taylor Gray finished fifth to round out the top five.
Christian Eckes and Grant Enfinger both have strong Playoff positions for the remainder of the Round of 8 leaving Bristol, with Eckes 29 points above the cutline and Enfinger 14 to the good. Carson Hocevar also leaves above the cutline by 18 points.
Hocevar too has been consistently strong, finishing in the top five in nine of the last twelve races. He ended up fourth at Bristol.
“It’s super difficult, the way that it’s just pinned down on the bottom,” Hocevar described the racing, “so it’s a little frustrating from that perspective. But I mean, our 42 truck was really fast. We just needed to have a good smooth night tonight and get the points we could and not overextend ourselves and make any mistakes, and we did just that.”
“Just tough to do. We were in that box around the bottom,” he detailed. “It was just about not making mistakes and going to run the top.”
“Fourth and plus-twenty or plus-eighteen or whatever it is is good going into Talladega and that was our goal,” Hocevar added. “We’ll just keep clicking away.
Other drivers in more precarious Playoff position, however, struggled at Bristol. Zane Smith and Ben Rhodes leave 14 and 19 points below the cutline respectively, and Nick Sanchez and Ty Majeski will both be 22 points below heading into Talladega.
That means plenty of pressure for the defending series champion heading into a superspeedway race at Talladega.
“Unless you’re locked in, Talladega is anyone’s game for the next one we’ve got,” Smith said.
“Definitely a frustrating night. Fortunately we did score those stage points, but gosh dang it. This place is so cool but the past few years it’s just been a terrible race. You’re just stuck where you are.”
“I was really worried the second stage once we stayed out and had a hundred laps on tires at the end and was really unhappy with my truck and almost won the stage,” he explained of his decision to pit. “That just really showed how important clean air and track position was, and obviously I didn’t have that there at the end.”
“We’ll try to fight back and go win ourselves Talladega, and if not there then Homestead,” Smith concluded.
Ty Majeski had to fight just to finish 19th after his right-front tire went down with four laps to go in Stage 2. He managed to stay out on track, and though he was lapped, he got the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Majeski had to make further repairs after damaging the truck by staying out, though, and wasn’t able to get back to the front.
Nick Sanchez had a strong run through the field after starting from the back because of a suspension issue that prevented him from qualifying. He ended up finishing ninth.
“Obviously we started from the back and we had to flip the stage, and we were on older tires, but we had the speed to stay up there,” Sanchez said. “It sucks because I did legitimately think we had pace to contend for a win, but it just didn’t work out tonight.”
Zane Smith was up front much of the day, even leading 43 laps – the second-most of any driver – but chose to pit on the Stage 2 break. With limited tire wear, most trucks chose to stay out. Smith was already at a disadvantage, but he picked up an additional penalty for pitting over the line of his pit stall and had to restart from the rear.
Of the drivers below the cutline, Ben Rhodes had the most nondescript day, ending up seventh after running up around the top ten most of the race. He entered the round at a disadvantage, though, and he’ll have to do more than that to advance to the Championship 4.
The race featured four cautions, two of which were for cause. Greg Van Alst spun his No. 20 truck spun on lap 76, but the only big incident happened earlier on lap 24 when Jack Wood spun, collecting Dean Thompson. The incident also involved Corey Heim, though he drove away without any real damage.
Up to halfway, the Playoff drivers had a strong race. All eight were within the top eleven on lap 100 of 200, and then the troubles started almost immediately after that point.
The Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs resume with the second race of the Round of 8 at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, September 30th.
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