Despite two cases of short track hijinks, the right team ultimately won the NASCAR Truck Series race on Friday night at Indianapolis Raceway Park and the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
Grant Enfinger had struggled for much of the 2022 season, to the point where he blatantly admitted that his No. 23 team sucked on various occasions throughout the summer, but he snuck into the playoffs as the ninth seed after GMS Racing made some necessary decisions.
First came the hiring of Jeff Hensley, who Enfinger won five races with over four seasons at ThorSport, last month when the crew chief parted ways with fellow playoff driver Matt Crafton. Bud Haefele took over duties with Crafton, mind you.
Enfinger then appeared to have the playoff opener won when Carson Hocevar intentionally right reared Colby Howard in retaliation for contact in the previous corner. That happened with eight laps to go and right after Enfinger passed a dominant Ty Majeski.
The retaliatory contact easily could have screwed Enfinger and Hensley because it forced them down pit road to take tires at the very abrasive 0.686-mile short track. Technically, it didn’t force anyone to come down pit road as John Hunter Nemechek stayed out on tires he took at the second stage break. He lined up next to Taylor Gray who had several laps fresher tires when this happened:
The caution allowed Enfinger to make his way back to third for the final restart and capitalized when Zane Smith, who suffered his own share of misfortune throughout the night, drove Nemechek up towards the wall on his own old tires.
No one had grip, except for Enfinger suddenly, who drove back through the top-10 on new tires to win for the first time in 2022 while also advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Enfinger credits spotter Mike Herman Jr. for the win.
"It was won the restart before because Herm, my spotter, convinced me to take the outside, and I wanted the shortest way around and he wanted the shortest line and that was the way to go," Enfinger said. "I did it my way at the end of the second stage and that's why we got beat, so I let Herm make the call and it was the right call.
"Caution or no caution, that's how we won the race because lining up fourth at the choose, it was our race to lose."
Enfinger is more thrilled to just be back in Victory Lane since October 30, 2020 at Martinsville than what this means for the championship.
"Honestly, winning the race means more than locking in to the next round of the playoffs," Enfinger said. "It's been a struggle. GMS Racing has a history of winning and we've fallen short this year. It's not that we haven't won, but that we haven't contended a lot this year. We've had a handful of races, but this is one of the only races this year where we've had a race winning truck and that's the good feeling."
Meanwhile, 6 of the 10 playoff drivers were involved in some kind of incident throughout the night. First and second seeded Zane Smith and Chandler Smith had this run-in near the halfway point of the race.
Zane recovered to third, while Chandler finished 18th, and likely extra proud he won Pocono last weekend to give him a little more breathing room before Richmond and Kansas to close out the first round.
Zane owned what happened between himself and Chandler.
"Fans might have a different opinion but what I did to the (Nemechek) wasn't near as bad as what he did to (Taylor Gray) but you can't race those guys clean," Zane said. "I'd love to but if I pass (Nemechek) he would just wreck me.
"The incident with (Chandler) was on me. He was really on my door right as I turned off the wall and was wrecking loose. Unfortunately, I just washed up into him and it was similar to what happened to us at Texas. Good hard battle. Great rebound but wasn't on the right strategy at the end."
He also said he saw it coming between Nemechek and Gray.
"100 percent," Smith said. "I really like John Hunter away from the race track but those guys are gnarly to race with."
David Gilliland Racing, who fields the No. 17 for Gray, seemingly agreed.
Majeski had a tire going down during the final run leading to his getting overtaken by Enfinger on the final lengthy green flag run and the caution may have actually saved him en route to an eight-place finish and staying above the cutline. Majeski also earned a playoff point that could benefit him in the next round.
Ultimately, Crafton entered the race as the lowest seed and battled to a ninth place run to give himself a shot over the next two races. He and Christian Eckes are currently below the cutline after the playoff opener.
1. Grant Enfinger, Adv.
2. Zane Smith +50
3. Ben Rhodes +36
4. Stewart Friesen +28
5. John Hunter Nemechek +24
6. Chandler Smith +24
7. Ty Majeski +19
8. Carson Hocevar +7
9. Matt Crafton -7
10. Christian Eckes -7
Then there was defending champion Ben Rhodes who overcame an early speeding penalty to finish second and set himself up well for the next two races. This was an especially important result because Rhodes hadn’t posted a top-five in the 10 races since winning the Bristol Dirt Race.
"Circumstances at the very end worked in their favor more than ours," Rhodes said. "Regardless, they had a fast truck and deserve to be in victory lane, but I thought we had a faster Toyota Tundra. I really wanted to get this T-Sport 99 in victory lane and this is my home track now, really. It's the big event for ThorSport and I really wanted this one.
"At the end of the day, there's some people happy, and some people mad, but I'm just happy to have momentum back on our side."