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,” Rhodes said. “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 …”