By Cole Cusumano
Mired in controversy due to the excessive amount of cautions, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series put on another thrilling spectacle in one of the entertainment capitals of the world. For the first time in 2021, it wasn’t Ben Rhodes who tasted victory, but one of the brightest stars in John Hunter Nemechek.
Using lessons learned from his team owner and Las Vegas Motor Speedway specialist Kyle Busch, the 23-year-old was able to outpace the master and lead a race-high 94 laps en route to his seventh career Truck Series victory.
The two-hour and five-minute event (longest for the Truck Series since 2018) supplied the 12,500 fans in attendance and the thousands watching at home with endless intrigue from the drop of the green flag — beginning with Austin Hill.
Hill, who finished third, didn’t have a very favorable start to the Bucked Up 200. He took the green flag from 31st and reported a spongey brake pedal on Lap 1. Fortunately, this didn’t play a factor throughout the event, as Vegas isn’t a brake-heavy track. Instead, it was another variable that provided fits for Hill and the field — tires.
“Ultimately, the biggest thing for us tonight was we kept having the left-front chord,” Hill told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Our truck would just get so tight right when that left-front would start chording — I could almost feel the exact lap [it started to unravel].
“We just couldn’t keep it free enough to really make a charge there at the end. If we even got clean air maybe we could have held them off, but clean air was huge.”
In a twist no one saw coming, Busch even succumbed to a tire failure early in the final stage and brought out a caution in addition to falling off the lead lap. While the case could be made this is what stalled the Vegas native’s bid at a fourth consecutive Truck Series victory at the track, he wasn’t quite his dominant self.
Sure, he sliced his way into the top-10 by Lap 7 after starting 29th, but only paced the field for 16 circuits. Busch was conscious of tire situation; in fact, he was a frequent victim of tire rub on restarts, but played devil’s advocate in saying they didn’t play a huge factor throughout the race.
“Having a short tire set, honestly, it kind of lends itself to no pit strategy,” Busch told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “You pit at the stage breaks, you pit once when you can make it the rest of the way on fuel, and everyone else is gonna take their tires then and that’s pretty much it, because if you come and take tires — which I think a couple of guys did — it’s just way too hard to make that kind of track position back up going back through traffic with the tire separation not being that great.”
Contrary to the two-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion’s analysis, having a set of stickers towards the end did pay dividends. On Lap 177, Parker Kligerman was the final driver to use four-fresh Goodyears and went from 16th to eighth when the checkered flag waved.
While he had to settle for second, Busch felt he learned some vital lessons he could apply to the Cup race on Sunday in terms of going through the motions of competition — specifically, lane selection (the choose rule).
“Obviously, you don’t have practice, so you don’t get a chance to go out there and kind of feel some things out ahead of time, so you’re kind of winging it as you go along, but it’s a good reminder,” Busch said. “You can watch film and look at different things as much as you want to, but until you get out there and kind of feel it, you don’t really pick up on some of that stuff sometimes.”
In the end, Nemechek held off his team owner for the final five laps, but the seemingly insurmountable feat didn’t affect the driver of the No. 4 mentally.
“I don’t think I looked in my rearview mirror those last few laps,” Nemechek told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I was focused on the task at hand and luckily I have Kyle’s Cup spotter Tony Hirschman up on the spotter stand, so he was keeping me updated trying to help guide me in what I needed to do and kind of where I needed to run to be able to do the best that I can do and, luckily, he wasn’t able to catch us there at the end.”
Overall, it was a night of domination for Toyota, as they led all but 20 laps and occupied seven of the top-10 finishing positions, including the top-five. After winning every race thus far in 2021, it’s looking like the quest for the Championship at Phoenix Raceway could very well go through the Toyota Racing Development program.
Regardless, there’s lots of racing left in the regular season, and if the first three events are any indicator of what to expect, this could be one of the most entertaining Truck Series bids in years.