Column By: NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – In impressive fashion TRICON Garage’s Corey Heim captured the 2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Regular Season Championship at Richmond Raceway a few weeks ago – the seventh different driver in series history to accomplish the feat – and enters the Playoffs as the No. 1 seed heading into this weekend at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park for the TSport 200 (Friday, Aug. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Last season’s Regular Season Champion Zane Smith (2022) marched his way to the overall title, and this season Heim is looking to do the same.
“It means a lot having that buffer going into the Playoffs,” said Heim in reference to winning the Regular Season Championship and the 15 bonus Playoff points that go with it. “Not having that close encounter with the Playoffs’ cutline right from the start, I feel like it lets you start the Playoffs off with a little bit less stress.”
Heim rolls into the postseason opener with 2,030 points, eight points up on Zane Smith in second in the Playoff standings. This season, Heim has posted two wins, seven top fives and 13 top 10s.
“Our consistency over the past two or three months has been really good, and just being able to collect a lot of stage points and get some top fives and wins along the way,” said Heim. “If we can continue that momentum into the Playoffs we should be in really good shape.”
Heim’s fast momentum shouldn’t stall this weekend if his series track debut last season at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park is any indication, the Georgia native started fourth and finished fifth.
Zane Smith is poised for back-to-back CRAFTSMAN Truck Series title attempt
Front Row Motorsport’s Zane Smith returns to the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs looking to defend his last season title and become just the second driver in series history to win consecutive championships; joining three-time series champion Matt Crafton (2013-2014, 2019). Smith enters the 2023 Playoffs as the No. 2 seed, just eight points back from Playoff standings leader Corey Heim, after posting two wins and eight top fives this season.
“I’d say I am a pretty mellow guy,” said Zane Smith in response to a question about how he handles the pressures of winning a second championship. “I don’t get to wound up really, I’d say. I think every time you hit the race track it’s an audition in a way. So, especially when you get those opportunities in the Final Four. I hope to get there again this year and go back-to-back.”
Smith has earned a spot in the Championship 4 Round in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs the last three consecutive seasons finishing first (2022) and runner-up twice (2021, 2020) in the final standings.
“I feel like these races in the Playoffs are great races for us,” Smith commented. “Especially if we are able to get to Phoenix, I feel like Phoenix is one of my best race tracks.”
Smith’s first hurdle of the Playoffs comes this weekend in the form of Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, a .686-mile track that Smith managed to produce a third-place finish at last season.
Grant Enfinger looks to jump start postseason by defending his win at Indianapolis
GMS Racing’s Grant Enfinger returns to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park looking to jump start his Playoff run with another win in the postseason opener, the TSport 200 (Friday, Aug. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Last season, Enfinger made a daring move on the final restart of the race to pass John Hunter Nemechek for the lead and win the postseason opener at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park – his first and only win of the 2022 season.
“I think any time you go into a track you have won at, and won at recently you have more confidence, but yeah this is big time racing and each year guys are making their stuff better,” said Enfinger. “We can’t just rest on last year’s stats and last year’s set-up. We have to keep improving and I have to keep improving as a driver.”
Last year, Enfinger started in the fifth positions and raced his way to the victory at Indianapolis. This year Enfinger enters the postseason with much more momentum, having accumulated two wins, six top fives and nine top 10s in the first 16 races of the year.
“I definitely think we can make it to the Championship 4 at Phoenix,” said Enfinger. “I feel like we have got as good shot as anybody in coming home with the big trophy. I truly believe with all my heart that there is not a race on the remaining part of the schedule that we can’t win at.”
Carson Hocevar has a different mindset for this season’s Playoffs
Niece Motorsport’s driver Carson Hocevar grabbed his series leading third win of the regular season at Richmond Raceway a couple weeks ago, and now enters the Playoffs with a completely different mindset than he has had in the past.
“We have lot of points in the bank, a lot of Playoff points in the bank and a lot more speed,” Hocevar mentioned when commenting on his run to the Playoffs this season. “We don’t have to be near as desperate. The only way we don’t get to Phoenix is if we beat ourselves. Rather than having to muscle up. We had our tongue hanging out just to get here the last two years. Just to get here.”
With 21 Playoff points to take into the postseason, Hocevar is seeded third in the Playoff standings heading into this weekend at Indianapolis.
“My goal is to be upfront the rest of the way,” said Hocevar. “We don’t want to squeak into Phoenix.”
Hocevar will have his work cut out for him this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis Raceway Park, in last season’s Playoff opener he started seventh and finished 21st after being shuffled in a late restart.
Everything about the Playoffs is new for Rev Racing’s rookie Nick Sanchez
The only Sunoco rookie from this season’s class to make the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs, is Rev Racing’s Nick Sanchez. The Miami, Florida native is in first season in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series and in comparison to the ARCA Menards Series, where he won his last championship, it is starkly different having no postseason. Though the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs will be new to Sanchez, he knows he will be fast every weekend.
“I think it is a very strong field from top to bottom,” said Sanchez. “Week-by-week you really don’t know who will be in Victory Lane. But if you are talking raw speed, I think you can put us right up there with the No. 11 (Corey Heim) as some of the fastest trucks in qualifying and just the fastest on speed.”
Sanchez has no doubt been fast this season, in 16 starts he has collected two top fives, eight top 10s and four poles.
“I think my expectations (for the Playoffs) is just to compete for wins and ultimately get to Phoenix,” said Sanchez. “But I feel like I want to treat every race as its own season. Not really worry about points too much, not really worry about the end goal of Phoenix, but live in the moment. At this point, we really just want to compete for wins.”
Though this weekend will be his series track debut at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, he does have one ARCA Menards Series start at .686-mile track posting a seventh-place finish last season.
Matt DiBenedetto is proud but not satisfied with just making the Playoffs
In his second full season with Rackley W.A.R. in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Matt DiBenedetto has earned a spot in the Truck Playoffs for the first time in his career, and it’s the first appearance for the organization as well.
“It’s so rewarding for the whole team, and we are so proud to have made it (to the Playoffs),” said DiBenedetto. “Because it has taken everybody. To think this team has made the Playoffs in just its third year is so amazing. And Rackley Roofing should be so proud. They poured in so much to make this happen.”
But the California native isn’t satisfied with just making the postseason this year, he has much bigger plans.
“Us as team, I know we have grown a lot, overcome a lot and you know turned a lot of heads, especially in this latter part of this year showing our progress and our strength as a team and our consistency, but truly I believe we can make it to the Final Four,” said DiBenedetto. “I really do. I know a lot of circumstances need to fall our way, and there are a lot of fast trucks we are up against, but everybody has seen the growth and progress of our team and everything Rackley and this group has poured in and Chevrolet and how serious everyone has taken this. And I am really proud of that.”
DiBenedetto enters the 2023 CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs as the ninth seed with 2,002 points.
DiBenedetto made his series track debut at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park last season, where he started 18th and raced his way up to an 11th-place finish.
The Beat Goes On: Matt Crafton extends Playoff appearance record
One competitor in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs that you can never count out is veteran ThorSport Racing driver Matt Crafton. The three-time CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion (2013-2014, 2019) earned the last spot in this year’s postseason seeding to extend his series record in Playoff appearances to eight consecutive seasons (2023, ’22 ’21, ’20, ’19, ’18, ’17, ’16). Experience he knows will benefit him during the Playoffs.
“It’s always good to have won championships and won races before,” said Crafton during Playoff Media Day. “It’s definitely a different pressure when you are racing for a championship. There is a lot on your shoulders and a lot on your mind each and every week.”
Crafton hasn’t been to Victory Lane in the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series since winning at Kansas Speedway on July 15, 2020 – 77 races ago. But Crafton will look to snap his winless streak this weekend, as the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series will wave the green flag on the 2023 Playoffs at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park with the TSport 200 on Friday, August 11 at 9 p.m. ET (on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). In his 12 career Truck starts at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, he has accumulated three top fives and nine top 10s; including finishing ninth in the Playoff opener last season.
Ty Majeski has a busy postseason schedule ahead of him
ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski returns to the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs for the second time in his career. Last season, Majeski earned a spot in the Playoffs’ Championship 4 Round and raced for a title at Phoenix but ultimately finished the season fourth in the championship standings. One difference heading into this year’s postseason is Majeski will also be competing in the ASA Stars National Tour simultaneously, which he thinks will benefit him.
“You know it’s not too often that a 23-race Truck schedule and a 10-race ASA schedule really overlap,” said Majeski. “We wanted to start off running the ASA Tour, it’s a great opportunity for us as a Late Model team. I think it is a good distraction. I think anytime you have a balance and can sustain a race car throughout the season is good. … And it’s fun. I enjoy going back to my roots.”
Despite the extra seat time, Majeski is focused on winning the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series title this season.
“We want to compete for championships,” said Majeski during NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoff Media Day driver availabilities. “We feel like we have the people around us to do it, the equipment do it. I feel like now I have the experience to just do the little things better. … We want to come out of Phoenix a champion.”
Majeski made his series track debut at this weekend’s Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park last year, where he started sixth and finished eighth.
Christian Eckes is confident McAnally Hilgemann Racing will perform in the Playoffs
While this may be driver Christian Eckes third time making the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs (2020, 2022-2023), it is the first for McAnally Hilgemann Racing. But despite the lack of experience the team may have in the postseason Eckes is confident they will perform well in the Playoffs.
“I feel like this team can contend,” Eckes said in CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Media Day. “Obviously, this team can win races, and the next big test will be the Playoffs. I am looking forwards to it. I feel like this team has the capability to go do it. It’s all just putting it together.”
Through 16 regular season races this year, Eckes has put up two wins, five top fives and eight top 10s. He enters the Playoffs as the No. 4 seed, just 11 points back from Corey Heim in the standings lead.
“I feel like everybody is excited (to make the Playoffs),” said Eckes. “This is kind of new for them obviously, but there are quite a few people in the organization that have championship experience, but over the last few years they didn’t have a shot at contending. So, this is exciting times for sure.”
Last season at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park Eckes started the race in third but finished outside the top-10 (16th).
Rhodes knows the experience he has will be an advantage in the Playoffs
Former NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes heads into this season’s Playoffs with boat loads of confidence knowing his experience at winning a championship in this postseason format will pay dividends. Though his experience goes so far, he and his team are prepared for a depo run into the Playoffs.
“It takes the pressure off for sure (having Playoff experience),” said Rhodes. “But it (experience) only goes so far. You can’t make up with experience a slow truck or you can’t make up for dumb mistakes that are made. The frame of mind is good. It should lead to less risk. It should lead to smarter decisions. But all that is in theory. But I feel like as whole that pressure being off my shoulders definitely helps.”
Rhodes enters the Playoffs seeded seventh in the Playoff standings, 17 points back from the standings lead.
Keep an eye on Rhodes this weekend, in last season’s Playoff opener the 2021 champion started ninth and finished runner-up to Grant Enfinger.