MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The Championship 4 is set for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and three-quarters of the title-eligible field came away battle-scarred after a frantic Saturday start at Martinsville Speedway.
Zane Smith emerged victorious after a bare-knuckled overtime finish, with Matt Crafton and John Hunter Nemechek filing into the title race after an eventful afternoon in the United Rentals 200. Ben Rhodes did his best to stay above the conflict, maintaining fender neutrality to make the Championship 4 while many more of his competitors bickered about their lot on pit road afterward.
Those four will run for the Camping World Trucks title next Friday (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) at Phoenix Raceway in the Lucas Oil 150. Last year’s champ Sheldon Creed, Stewart Friesen, Chandler Smith and Carson Hocevar were eliminated.
Nemechek was among those with the most to argue about afterward. A run-in with non-playoff driver Austin Wayne Self left the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver on the receiving end of a retaliatory bump, and his No. 4 Toyota sustained terminal damage, ending his day 75 laps from the finish.
“He shouldn’t be out here if he’s just going to hook someone in the right rear and turn them in the fence,” Nemechek said after a quick stop at the infield care center. “NASCAR should definitely look at that. It’s playoff contention. You’ve got to have respect and he doesn’t.”
Self offered his own explanation after exiting his No. 22 Chevrolet.
“I have no idea. I was turning in the corner and it’s just Martinsville — main thing, whatever,” Self said. “Everybody’s fighting for the same real estate. I didn’t know who it was when I turned in, so it wasn’t anything against anybody. I guess bad judgment call on my part. At the end of the day, I’m racing for the same thing here at Martinsville. He could’ve been a little more conservative maybe, but I had no idea who it was, so it’s not like I turned left on purpose just to wreck him personally. Could’ve been anybody inside me there.”
Nemechek said he paced for the remainder of the race inside the No. 4 hauler to await his playoff fate. He entered the Round of 8 finale atop the standings with a 36-point cushion. He finished 39th and made the cut by just four points — “a little bit too close for comfort,” Nemechek said.
“I’m just glad that we advanced,” Nemechek said. “My motto coming into this was ‘survive and advance.’ We didn’t survive, but we advanced, so that’s good.”
Crafton will drive for his fourth series championship at Phoenix, but was in a fighting mood after Martinsville. He faced off with Creed on pit road in an attempt to explain his side of a crash with 16 laps remaining in regulation, a scrap worsened by a bump from Crafton’s fellow ThorSport Racing driver Grant Enfinger, who he berated as “my worthless teammate.”
Despite all the jostling, Crafton finished fifth and advanced by the same four-point margin that sent Nemechek through. In redoubling his focus for the title race, Crafton also suggested that a form of frontier justice may be needed to restore some respect to the series’ spirit of competition.
“Yeah, whip somebody’s ass after they wreck you,” Crafton said. “At the end of the day, don’t just talk about it, do something about it. That’s my motto. These guys work too hard, sponsors pay too much money just to get wrecked and show no class like that. So just bust somebody in the mouth and it’ll fix it, I think.”
Zane Smith forced his own way into the final mix, from a starting spot inside the second row for the overtime restart. He forced the issue with a bold, three-wide move that ultimately paid off, finally avoiding Friesen’s contact with late-race leader Todd Gilliland and ending a daylong contest of tempers and bumpers. “I got flipped off on Lap 2,” he said. “That’s probably a new record for me.”
Rhodes wound up sitting the prettiest of all, logging a relatively uneventful seventh-place result and keeping his No. 99 ThorSport team out of the warring factions on pit road post-race.
“I was putting more energy into avoiding the wrecks than the energy I was putting into chasing the clock,” Rhodes said, referring to the track’s traditional grandfather clock trophy for the race winner. “I knew if I’m chasing the clock, I’m going to be a target. … We did everything right. I just, after I saw what happened to John Hunter, I hated it for him because I saw his season going down the drain for nothing. So I was like, I really don’t want to be that guy. We’re good on points right now. Let’s just chill out. We don’t need to put ourselves in a pissing match with nobody and get wrecked. That was the plan and we followed it and stayed true to it.
“Stayed patient and we let people go when they wanted to beat our bumper off or said they wanted to wreck us, and it paid off. So we’re making it to Phoenix and avoided the carnage.”