NASCAR Cup Series
NASCAR Leadership Optimistic About Future of The Sport
Nov 4, 2022
That was quintessential NASCAR championship racing if it ever was.
Ben Rhodes was on just fresh right-side tires defending against Zane Smith and Chandler Smith; Ty Majeski having already spun due to his own full-send moment in pursuit of the Truck Series championship and setting up this scenario in the first place.
Zane Smith was arguably the most statistically impressive championship contender over the course of the season, not even including his back-to-back championship race runner-up finishes, and was made to earn it on Friday night at Phoenix Raceway.
"I couldn't lose another one -- it wasn't an option."
A slower pit stop forced him to restart not only behind those on no tires, or just the two fresh right sides, but also behind Chandler Smith and Majeski. The ensuing restart, with Stewart Friesen and Carson Hocevar on the front row with old tires, was everything you would expect it to be.
It became apparent that Zane Smith wouldn’t be denied on that restart when he took Chandler Smith, Taylor Gray and Matt Crafton four-wide, bouncing off his fellow namesake, before driving all the way to second with Majeski on his tail.
This wasn’t the winning move, but it was certainly reflective of the will to not be denied a third-consecutive year.
"A lot happened that I don't even remember, but I do remember dooring Chandler," Zane Smith said. "We were nose to nose and neither one of us were going to lift."
"I think, he was in a box and had to make it happen he knew it was time to get aggressive and how aggressive to get," Lawson said. "It sounds weird but I wasn't that nervous because it was four wide bottom and not four wide top."
But Smith knows it could have played out a much different way with a less thoughtful championship rival.
"I want to give a shout to the other three," Zane said. "We battled hard, didn't wreck each other and we could have. We were fighting for a championship so so much respect to them. I don't know if it was an exciting finish but I feel like that was one of the craziest races I ever could be a part of."
The four-wide made Zane susceptible to Majeski from behind him and the five-time ARCA Midwest Tour went for it, full-send into the back of the Front Row Motorsports No. 38, the impact sending him around and setting up the green-white-checkered.
"We were trying to bring a championship home for Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) and I got pretty aggressive there, tossed it off into the apron on 1 and tried to get to his quarter panel and wiggle him a little bit," Majeski said. "And in doing so, I probably should have been either more aggressive or way less aggressive.
"I just kind of met in the middle there on aggression standpoint, and just took all the air off my right side and spun out underneath him trying to get underneath him and get a run. I knew if I could get underneath him and get to his quarter panel on exit and pull him back, I knew at that point it could have been between Ben and I and really would have ensured a championship for ThorSport.
"And that was sort of my vision in making that move. Just I didn't execute it well enough, and it didn't pan out."
One down, three left standing.
Then, with the remaining contenders running first, second and third, came decision time for the choose rule.
Ben Rhodes: Bottom
Zane Smith: Bottom
Chandler Smith: Top
This is actually what Chandler Smith wanted to see, but just needed to be really careful on the restart to not get called by NASCAR for a restart violation and he nailed everything but his own second-guessing internal monologue.
"I wish I could redo it because I got such a good launch," Chandler Smith said. "I actually launched way better than him and I was about half a truck length at the start-finish, but I didn't want for some reason for there to be a penalty, so I lifted a little to let him get back even with me.
"A part of me wishes I would have just kept in it and went on with it. There may have been a different outcome, penalty or not. I still gave it my best shot. But coulda, woulda, shoulda, right?"
Meanwhile, the caution was not what Rhodes wanted to see, because it placed him in an impossible scenario on the restart. Smith attacked on the bottom and Smith had that mega run with momentum on the high side and there was no blocking both of them.
"Yeah, if I could do it over again, I would've changed up my restart a little bit," Rhodes said. "I went with what I thought would have been best for me."
Coulda, woulda, shoulda, right?
"Again, not having the same level of grip that those guys had, I didn't expect them to get as big of a jump that they got," Rhodes added. "I expected them to be with me a little bit but not pretty much in front of me by Turn 1. Yeah, that was a little unexpected. If I could go back, I would change that for sure."
Rhodes, the defending Truck Series champion, was the weakest of the four contenders on Friday night so that he even had the chance to win the race with the decision to take two tires was a welcome one. That’s all Rich Lushes.
"He's bold," Rhodes said. "He makes a lot of crazy pit calls like that, and sometimes they work. We were just on the cusp of making it work. I think if that last restart had come out, we could have held them off and be really happy right now.
"But I'm not. So here I am. I tell you, I'm thankful for those calls, I just wish it could have worked out differently. That was just the story of two versus four. I couldn't get the jump I needed on the green. I just didn't have the grip with my two tires that the other guys had, and it was just extremely difficult to hold them off."
And yet, last corner, Rhodes still was a successful bump-and-run away from winning consecutive championships.
"TV didn't show it the best, but I just banged the truck off the wall because I wasn't going to make the corner," Rhodes said. "I just used the wall to turn me and kind of pulled shades of Ross Chastain, I guess. I didn't ride it, but I hit it and was able to barely stay in front of the 18."
Just one more hurdle for Zane Smith to overcome.
"He was on my bumper from the time I turned off the wall but I didn't really feel it until the center of the corner and started getting rally loose. I was so nervous it was going to be like the Xfinity race finish from last year (between Daniel Hemric and Austin Cindric). I got really loose, then really tight, and then I heard the screaming which told me we had it."
All told, it was one of the most dramatic battles for a championship in this final four era of NASCAR playoff racing and Smith personified the 'not to be denied' mindset.
"We went from dominating the race, struggling on pit road to restarting 11th with 11 to go as the fourth seed and I wasn't going to accept anything else," he said. "I was either going to win or Bob Jenkins was going to get a wrecked truck. We gave him a championship trophy at the end of the day because I just wasn't going to lose another one.
"It's scarred me too bad, and it's the craziest finish I've ever been a part of and the biggest win, too."