Avondale, Ariz. — NASCAR’s Truck Series has itself a spicy championship fight, with teenager Austin Cindric smack in the middle of the controversy, after a heated Friday night race at Phoenix Raceway.
The race was stopped three times in the final 20 laps for accident cleanup, including the mess created when Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Noah Gragson and Christopher Bell wrecked each other racing for the lead. The night went so long, a football game between Stanford and Washington had to be moved to another network, so defending series champion Johnny’s Sauter victory celebration was abbreviated.
Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Cindric advanced to next week’s championship race — Sauter had already qualified — with their finishes at Phoenix. Cindric’s spot was contested because he wrecked the competition to earn his berth in next Friday night’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Bell clinched his on points by winning the first two stages. Then two-time series champion Crafton locked up his spot on points in the second stage at Phoenix.
With Sauter already in, it put just one slot in the championship on the line during the final stage at Phoenix. That turned it into a race between Ben Rhodes and Cindric for the right to race for the championship.
A caution sent both drivers to pit road with 25 laps remaining, and Cindric was slowed by a second consecutive troubled stop. But it was a questionable call to pit in hindsight because Rhodes also lost track position when other drivers didn’t follow him.
Rhodes had been fourth but restarted ninth. Cindric was 12th with 21 laps remaining and the season on the line.
That’s where the race for the final championship spot all but ended. John Hunter Nemechek made a late bid to bump Cindric, but had to win the race to advance and wound up second.
But it was that restart with 21 laps remaining that set the championship field. As Rhodes and Cindric battled for position on the restart, the two trucks made contact that led to a race-ending wreck for Rhodes. Cindric went low on the restart to gain momentum for a potential pass and Rhodes briefly dipped down in an apparent attempt to block him.
The two made contact that caused Rhodes to spin
“I was there and he blocked, that’s his fault,” Cindric radioed.
Rhodes’ crew chief saw it far differently and felt Cindric used a dirty move to collect his spot at Homestead. Eddie Troconis also warned that Cindric will have a rough race ahead of him in the championship.
The race was stopped and Cindric said during the pause it was a racing incident.
“I had a good run, Ben went to block, and I was there,” Cindric said. “I can’t get pushed around because that was my chance and he was better than we were all night. Nothing intentional there. I tried to get a run and held my ground.”
Rhodes called it a “desperation” move by Cindric and said he was driving “over his head.”
“There’s definitely a time and place to go three-wide, that wasn’t it,” said Rhodes. “He put me in a bad place. I am not sure that was the right move on his part.”
Crafton was also in the wreck and will race against Cindric next week for the title. He sided with Rhodes.
“I told Ben, the 19 (Cindric) better not finish Homestead,” Crafton said in encouraging Rhodes to retaliate next week when Cindric has so much on the line.
Brad Keselowski owns the truck that Cindric is racing, and is shutting down the team after next week’s race. He tweeted after watching a replay during the red flag that he didn’t believe either driver was at fault.
“Tough deal. I’m not sure either driver could or should have done anything different,” he wrote. “Sometimes things happen when you go fast for a living ...”
Ryan Blaney probably needs to win at Phoenix Raceway to earn a shot at NASCAR’s championship.
He’ll at least start up front Sunday in his bid to put The Wood Brothers in the final four contenders next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Blaney won the pole in his final chance to qualify for NASCAR’s championship race with a lap at 137.942 mph around Phoenix in a Ford.
It gave Blaney the top starting spot for Sunday’s penultimate race of the playoffs. There is one slot available in the field of four who will race for the championship next week, and Blaney is one of five drivers chasing that spot.
“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole. My mindset doesn’t change,” Blaney said. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”
Blaney bested Denny Hamlin in Friday qualifying. Both playoff drivers need to win to grab the final spot in the finale, and Hamlin waited until the third and final round to cut a corner on the track in an attempt to better his time.
Hamlin’s lap at 137.936 briefly put his Toyota on top of the leaderboard, but Blaney bumped him moments later.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have already locked up spots in the finale. Busch and Truex are in Toyotas, while Harvick drives a Ford. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott are the only two Chevrolet drivers with a shot to make the finale.
Kyle Larson, who has been eliminated from the playoffs, qualified third.
He was followed in qualifying by playoff drivers Elliott, Truex and Harvick.
With Elliott due to start right behind Hamlin, there was brief speculation that Elliott could seek revenge from an incident two weeks ago at Martinsville. Elliott was on his way to a victory that would have clinched his spot in the finale when Hamlin wrecked him out of the lead.
Hamlin said the two raced professionally last weekend at Texas and he had no concern for Sunday.
“Was I worried last weekend? No and I’m not worried this weekend,” he said. “Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do and that’s to win. Our objective is the same objective as his — it’s to go out there and win on Sunday. You really can’t worry about other guys. If you’ve got that in front of you and you’re thinking about that, your chances of winning are slim to none.”
Busch was eighth and Johnson qualified 12th, but felt his Chevy was far faster.
“We made it to the third round and I just got really aggressive in that round trying to run a flat,” he said. “Just got in the corner too hard on both ends and I kind of pushed up. So, could have been better but I don’t know if we could have had the pole. I think we would have only been about fifth or sixth if I had got it right.”
Brad Keselowski was the lowest-qualifying playoff driver at 16th. He starts Sunday’s race with an advantage in the point standings over the other four drivers trying to make it into the championship, but he has very little breathing room and a victory is his only sure bet to make the finale.
But, Keselowski found solace in the speed that teammate Blaney showed, and is hopeful he’s got something for Sunday.
“It’s not where we want to start, but when the track gets hot and slick we seem to run better here,” Keselowski said. “My teammate Blaney is real fast, so I know we’re all real similar and we’ll have a little confidence in that.”