Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Carson Hocevar rides late-race shift in fortunes for career-best third at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. — As he drove off pit road with 34 laps remaining, Carson Hocevar’s promising evening appeared to be sunk. The side skirt on his No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet had begun to dangle and needed fixing. He was summoned back to pit road and went from the top five to 28th place.

It turns out, mired near the back of the field was the ideal spot after a massive 17-truck crash thinned the herd in Friday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Darlington Raceway. Hocevar picked his way through the carnage, systematically moved up as cautions mounted and collected a career-best third-place result in the Liftkits4Less.com 200.

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The 18-year-old rookie was in position to make that podium finish even grander on a restart with two laps left, but he was unable to catch eventual winner Sheldon Creed and runner-up Ben Rhodes before a final yellow ended things.

“I think any racer, you finish third, you’re not going to feel great about it. You’re so close and you want to win so bad that it overcomes the emotion of third place,” Hocevar said. “When it comes Monday and you look at points and we all sit back, you all feel good about it, but in the moment, I would’ve been wanting to do burnouts on the frontstretch right now.”

No. 42 crew chief Phil Gould said the truck’s side skirt had probably worked some bolts loose after contact with the racing surface, causing it to flap in the wind.

“NASCAR called us in, which turned out to be a blessing, I guess,” Gould said, “because we’d have been right in the middle of that mayhem on the restart.”

Chatter on the team radio almost forecasted the major stack-up, and Hocevar let out a laugh after his good fortune was realized when the front of the field jammed up on the restart with 30 laps remaining.

“I went from, I could have cried and wanted to punch somebody to wanting to hug ’em because they saved us there,” Hocevar said. “I said even on the radio, at least if they go down and (crash) in Turn 1, now I’ve got the hooligans behind me, and sure enough that’s exactly what happened. We got lucky in that sense.”

Hocevar led his first lap of the season and bettered his previous personal best — a fifth-place run in the Daytona International Speedway opener — in his 17th career Truck Series start. Even more impressive was the result came in his first effort on the historic 1.366-mile track, one of NASCAR’s most treacherous layouts.

It’s the next step in the development phase for Hocevar, who was tapped by Al Niece’s organization for his first full-time campaign in Camping World Trucks this season.

“He did an awesome job,” Gould said. “For a rookie and his first time and Darlington to start the race with no practice, he looked like he’d run here 100 times. I was thoroughly impressed. … I think to come to a place like this and run as well as he did speaks volumes for his talent. He’s very committed, he’s a student of the game, and I think that first win’s right around the corner.”