Rhodes passes Zane Smith with 8 laps left to win the Truck Series championship while Nemechek and Crafton settle for distant 3rd and 4th

AVONDALE, AZ — Ben Rhodes and Zane Smith entered Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 with the most success at the Phoenix Raceway. Rhodes, had two straight top seven finishes at the Phoenix Raceway while Smith was runner-up in his lone NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start on the Arizona oval last year and fifth in his Xfinity Series debut here in 2019.

John Hunter Nemechek meanwhile was 29th in each of his last two Truck Series starts at Phoenix and runner-up in two of his previous three prior.

Matt Crafton was 14th last year, sixth in 2019, 11th in 2018 and 21st in 2017. That’s why on the surface when you see Rhodes finished first among the four to claim his first career Truck Series championship while Smith, Nemechek and Crafton were second through fourth respectively after, the stats made it not too surprising.

I mean Crafton led the fewest laps all season among the four at 19 and hadn’t won a race in his last 38 races now dating back to Kansas last July 25, 2020. So, for him to battle his No. 88 Toyota all race long in stage finishes of seventh and eighth respectively and a 12th place run in the end, well that’s par for the course.

The thing is, for Rhodes to top Smith and not Nemechek playing a role into Friday’s race was the most surprising. Nemechek won a series high five races in 2021 including leading the second most laps at 572. One could say that his No. 4 Toyota was once again the fastest truck around the 1-mile track on Friday night in general. The thing is, he had to endure too much early damage to make a full comeback for the title race.

Nemechek got into the Turn 2 wall on the opening lap and then contact with a backmarker early in the race to his left front ended up cutting down a tire not long after. He then had to pit for repairs and would lose two laps as a result. Luckily for him, he’d get a quick caution after on Lap 11 which gave him one of those two laps back.

He’d run most of the way a lap down though as he’d have to pit for both stage breaks and those were the only cautions until Lap 100 for Tate Fogleman stalled on track to bring out the fourth and final yellow of the night. That ended up giving Nemechek his final lap back and he was 24th and now on the lead lap again. After spending 89 laps a lap down, he was back.

The problem is, it was too little too late. He would rally to come back up to seventh and was only 3.3 seconds back of Rhodes at the finish, a seventh place result was the best he could do which landed him third among the four title contenders despite a faster truck than most.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 05: John H Nemechek, driver of the #4 Pye-Barker Fire & Safety Toyota, pits with sparks after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway on November 05, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Yeah, I got run in to the first corner, got into the fence, somebody else ran in to us on the left side and this thing is killed pretty much,” Nemechek said. “Had a left front tire go flat, went down two laps, got both of our laps back, but just needed more laps, I guess. After all, felt we had the best truck tonight, Playoff-wise for sure.”

Nemechek, dominated the season but he lost his momentum this summer. The KBM driver entered Knoxville in July on the heels of three wins in a four race span including eight top fives at that point of the year (13 races).

He didn’t win again.

Nemechek, did finish runner-up twice over the final nine races, but that and a third (Bristol) and fourth (Talladega) were the only top fives to show for it. He was outside the top 10 in four of those final nine races and never really was a factor again.

He was crashed while leading coming to the finish at Talladega. He was crashed last week in Martinsville. He had a rough night again for a third straight week.

With Nemechek and Crafton out of it all night, that allowed Rhodes to really run away with the title for most of the race. He was fifth and third respectively in the two stages and was out front under green flag conditions among the four title contenders all the way until Lap 110 when Zane Smith passed him on track for the third spot.

At that point, Rhodes thought it was all over.

“That was the hardest last 40 laps I think I have ever driven in my life,” said Rhodes, who won the first two races of the season and none since. “I was doing things to the race car I probably shouldn’t have been doing. It was dumb, but I had everything to lose.”

He stormed back and was helped when Smith caught lapped traffic with 10 to go. Two laps later, Rhodes made a bold move by getting into the back of Smith entering Turn 2 to move him up the track and speed by.

He’d never look back.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 05: Ben Rhodes, driver of the #99 Bombardier LearJet 75 Toyota, celebrates after winning the 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 05, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We brought it home and won it. I don’t even know what to say,” Rhodes continued. “This is crazy. Bookends for the season — I’m so proud of my ThorSport Racing group. This wasn’t like a vision we had, right, everyone wants to win it, but you just don’t know, it’s so hard. I just can’t thank (owners) Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) enough. They are the reason I’m here tonight.

“I can’t even talk right now, I’m so excited.”

Smith, was dejected. He doesn’t know yet what his future holds in this sport as he’s now a free agent. To be leading the championship battle with nine laps left then getting passed a lap later wasn’t ideal.

“We were eight laps away from winning a championship,” said Smith, who has not secured a ride for next season. “I tried to use all my tools from my side of the thing, but I just couldn’t turn. We fought that all night.”

This was the second time in as many years that Smith finished second in the championship. He only had three top fives all season but two of which occurred in the final two weeks.

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