Photo courtesy of Sean Gardner | Getty Images
After a record-breaking 10 cautions, an overtime restart, and a last-lap crash, Christian Eckes won the Fr8 208 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was the second win of his Craftsman Truck Series career and his first win since joining McAnally-Hilgemann Racing during the offseason.
Eckes won Stage 1 after beating Front Row Motorsports driver Zane Smith in a tight side-by-side battle down the front stretch exiting Turn 4 on the final lap of the stage which was also the first lap of a restart after a caution was brought out on Lap 24 by TRICON drivers Tanner Gray and Layne Riggs.
GMS Racing driver Daniel Dye was off pace early and was lapped 12 laps in but he was able to use the caution to pit for adjustments while remaining just one lap down. He gained the one lap back at the end of the stage and finished the race in the lead lap in 16th.
A piece of debris on the track brought out the first caution of Stage 2 on Lap 40 and Smith hit the debris into the infield taking minor damage to the bottom of the left side of his bumper.
ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Ty Majeski and Ben Rhodes dominated through Stage 2, running first, second, third a lot of the way.
In the closing laps of the stage, TRICON driver John Hunter Nemechek made a good run, pushing for the lead. However, he finished the stage in third as Crafton held out for the Stage 2 victory.
Nemechek battled for the lead with fellow TRICON driver Corey Heim during the first green flag run of the final stage, but on Lap 79 G2G Racing driver Akinori Ogata got loose and spun out. He slammed into the wall in a single truck incident, bringing out a yellow flag. Ogata managed to recover and finish in 17th, on the lead lap.
Under caution a majority of the field elected to pit. While exiting his pit stall, Heim spun out CR7 Motorsports driver Colby Howard on pit road. Howard made contact with Halmar Friesen Racing driver Stewart Friesen who was attempting to exit his pit box.
On the ensuing restart, Rev Racing driver Nicholas Sanchez was slow getting up to speed in front of Heim, and Heim was sandwiched between him and Smith with nowhere to go. Heim took massive damage to the front of his car and the winner of last year’s race had his day ended early. Smith finished his eventful day in 20th.
Shortly after the next restart, TRICON driver Dean Thompson was forced into the outside wall by Niece Motorsports driver Lawless Alan. The contact brought out another caution with 39 laps to go.
Throughout the race, drivers opted for the outside lane on restarts with five to six occasionally choosing the outside before the first person would opt to start front row inside as the outside lane’s speed was much better on restarts. However, there was long-run speed to be found inside and Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Jack Wood took advantage of it late in the race.
On Lap 113, Wood gained the lead but not for long as Nemechek spun him out on the next lap while pushing his rear bumper after Wood had moved to the outside line once he had the lead.
Wood avoided hitting a wall, Eckes narrowly missed day-ending contact with Wood, and GMS driver Grant Enfinger made a masterful save, keeping his truck clean while spinning down the back stretch. Wood still managed a 10th-place finish which ties his career-best from World Wide Technology Raceway in 2021.
Lap 123 brought out another caution as Niece driver Carson Hocevar got up into the wall and Alan made contact with him. Crafton also took damage on the tail end of the incident. The crash ended the day of both Hocevar and Alan, but Crafton was able to finish the day in ninth.
The next restart came late in the race and Sanchez took an advantage but with four to go the 10th caution flag of the race was waved, an Atlanta Truck Series record according to the broadcast. The caution brought the race into overtime leaving two to go at the line on the restart.
Eckes, Nemechek, Rhodes and Sanchez battled for the lead on the final lap. Sanchez and Eckes emerged out front coming out of Turn 4 as a wreck began in their rear view. Sanchez tried to come up to make a block but the contact with Eckes put him sideways momentarily and Eckes kept momentum, crossing the finish line first and winning his first race of the season. Sanchez finished in second and Nemechek finished in third.
In his first start of the season, Niece driver Bayley Currey finished fourth, the best finish of his career in any of the three National Series.
Rhodes finished fifth after hitting the wall down the final stretch and Majeski finished 11th. Their ThorSport teammate Hailie Deegan finished 12th, a nice improvement after she wrecked and did not finish in the first two races this season.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will be back in action next weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the XPEL 225, the first road course on the 2023 Truck Series schedule. The race is next Saturday, March 25 at 1:30 p.m. ET. Zane Smith was last year’s victor, will he be able to find his second win of 2023 next week at COTA?