It was a fitting set-up for Friday night’s season championship Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race.
Restarts, lead changes and hot tempers characterized last week’s race at Martinsville Speedway to set the Championship 4 for this weekend. And 22-year-old Zane Smith earned his only win of the season – the most clutch victory of his young career – to advance to the title round.
Regular Season Champion John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes and three-time series champion Matt Crafton have also earned the right to vie for the season trophy at the 1-mile track in the Arizona desert.
The points have all been reset for the four title-eligible drivers and whoever finishes best among them will hoist the big trophy.
As the only championship-eligible driver to win in this last round of the Playoffs – Smith actually assumes the No. 1 seed. He pulled the ultimate long shot off over the weekend. He went into the Martinsville race, ranked last among the Playoff eligible, 40 points behind the cutoff and then won the race.
And Smith brings that momentum to a track, he’s had some success. The driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet boasts the top Average Finish (2.0) at Phoenix, finishing runner-up to 2020 series champ Sheldon Creed in last year’s title race. It is his only series start at Phoenix, but he led 48 laps, which ties Rhodes for most laps led there among the Championship 4. Rhodes has raced there six times, however, compared to Smith’s one.
In comparison to the Championship 4, Smith has the worst average finish (13.5) on the season, however, his 13 top-10 finishes are more than Crafton’s (12) and close to Nemechek’s and Rhodes’, who lead the series with 15 top-10s each. Smith is the only one among the four to win in the 2021 Playoffs.
Rhodes, who won the opening two races at Daytona this year, has the best season Average Finish (9.6) among the four title contenders. In addition to his two victories, he has three runner-up finishes. He had four top-10 finishes in the six Playoff races, including a best of second place at Las Vegas.
This is the first time Rhodes has earned a position in the Championship 4. In six starts at Phoenix, the driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota has a pair of top-five finishes and three top-10 runs. His best work is fourth place in 2019.
“We’re here for Phoenix and now this is my first time in the Final Four and I have a really good team behind me with ThorSport Racing and just really, really proud of their efforts all year,” Rhodes said after securing a position in the Championship last week.
“It comes down to one race now and I know we can do it.”
The only former champion among the four who will race for the title this weekend is 45-year-old Matt Crafton. He boasts the most top-10 Playoff race finishes (five) among the foursome. His best showings were runner-up at Gateway and fifth at Martinsville.
Though Phoenix has not necessarily been a highlight on his resume. He has six top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes in 20 starts there, but has led only 16 laps total. His best work is a runner-up finish in 2014. The driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota had three top 10s and two DNFs in the last six Phoenix races. He was 14th in last year’s season finale.
Nemechek, 24, driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, has been the championship frontrunner all season as he earned a career-high and series-best five victories, but after being wrecked out of the race at Martinsville – after highly-questionable contact by an non-Playoff truck – Nemechek suddenly found himself advancing to the Championship 4 Round by the slimmest of point margins.
His last win was eight races ago – this summer at Pocono – and he has three top-five finishes in the Playoffs, including a runner-up effort at Darlington. But he also has three finishes of 20th or worse, including that 39th-place finish Saturday at Martinsville.
He has four top-10 finishes in seven Phoenix starts and finished runner-up twice – in 2015 and 2017. He had DNFs, however, in his last two starts there – in 2018 and 2019. His Average Finish (13.7) at Phoenix is last among the four.