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NASCAR Truck Series playoff upended one lap at a time at Bristol

NASCAR: Truck Series UNOH 200
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

An entire season’s body of work can come down to the smallest of sample sizes in the NASCAR Truck Series playoffs.

For Christian Eckes, who dominated the UNOH 200, it came down to one lap with five to go and the lapped traffic he just couldn’t navigate. For Corey Heim, it was that same lap that made all the difference between whether he or Eckes would have a chance to race for a championship at Phoenix in November.

As it turns out, that one lap was Heim Time.

“I was in the zone,” Heim said. “I was thinking about all of the races that we gave away, and didn’t give away, and I just focused forward and set my pass up right where I needed to. Tony Hirschman, my spotter, did an awesome job getting me through there. I’m out of breath. It’s just so awesome to know we are in Phoenix. It’s awesome.”

Meanwhile, it was one lap where Ty Majeski, who had a top-five truck all night, got trapped in traffic and drifted up into Heim. It cut his right front tire and doomed him to a 19th place finish. The next caution, it was the one lap where defending champion Zane Smith would get penalized for pitting just outside of his pit stall, dooming him to a 24th place finish.

So much happened in so little time to completely upend the expected shape of the championship race and that doesn’t even consider that the next decisive race is Talladega on September 30.

Heim will race for the championship, which isn’t a surprise because he in the regular season champion and one of the most highly touted prospects of recent memory but the defending champion and one of he expected contenders are going to have to rally while also avoiding the big one at Talladega.

Even Eckes, with a +29-point advantage leaving Bristol left mad because he knows how quickly things can go wrong the final two races before the finale because it happened all around him, exuding daggers in his postrace interviews.

He harbored some real time resentment towards Tanner Gray, Heim’s teammate for disrupting his corner exit and allowing Heim to get under and complete the winning pass, denying him an automatic berth into the final four.

“I just think it’s ironic that the 15 (Tanner Gray) is three laps down and waited,” said Eckes. “Whatever. Good truck. I got really tight there at the end… That one stinks, for sure.”

Smith led for much of the second stage, giving up the lead late to Eckes, but simply had to hold serve and could have left Bristol in really safe shape to advance on points, but instead lost it all on pit road.

“They said I was pitted outside my box by a little bit and I had to start at the tail end,” Smith said. “I mean, we definitely had a rough night. You saw it, wherever you were going to restart is where you’re going to run. My truck was terrible in the second stage, but I had clean air. You just can’t pass. It just sucks.”

And then Majeski, who was presented a no-win scenario behind a slower truck and made the quick-witted decision to move up and Heim was there.

“He was kind of going and making decent time on the bottom and (Heim) pinned me and I just didn’t anticipate how much he was going to lift in the corner,” Majeski said. “That cut my right front down and this track is honestly really terrible.

“With the PJ1 on the bottom, it’s so dominant. I mean, I’m three or four tenths faster than the guys in the back and you just can’t go anywhere.”

Procedural Bristol

“In my opinion, it’s such a terrible product on such a great race track,” Majeski said. “I just wish we could pass and move around. You like to have options as a driver and I feel like the way this track is doesn’t give us a lot of options.”

That’s certainly true for Trucks with its low power and high downforce and drag anyway.

Certainly, the PJ1 is not helpful for the Trucks.

“I mean, you just can’t move around and the PJ1 is so dominant,” Smith said. “Like I said, you saw how dominant it was. I had 100 laps on tires and almost won the stage somehow. It just is what it is … It’s a great race track but a terrible race.”

Playoff Grid

Corey Heim Adv
Christian Eckes +29
Carson Hocevar +18
Grant Enfinger +14

Zane Smith -14
Ben Rhodes -19
Nick Sanchez -22
Ty Majeski -22

It’s worth noting that Majeski is the defending winner of the Truck Series race at Homestead.

“We won Homestead last year. Talladega, anybody can win there, so I don’t know,” Majeski said. “I’m not a huge fan of the plate races, but at the end of the day we have a chance to win there. If we repeat at Homestead again, we’re in the final four, so a lot to look forward to. We have a lot of good things going on within our race team, so we’ll keep our heads down and keep digging.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.