KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — John Hunter Nemechek chased down Carson Hocevar over the final laps at Kansas Speedway on Friday night, passing him as the white flag flew and denying Hocevar’s last-gasp chance at advancing in the NASCAR Truck Series playoffs.
Hocevar ran out of fuel and coasted across in second place, but he needed the win to advance. Nemechek’s pass allowed Christian Eckes to sneak into the final playoff spot, while three-time series champion Matt Crafton also was eliminated.
“I don’t know how you’re supposed to handle these,” said the utterly deflated Hocevar, who finished second for the fourth time in his career and third time this season, but has still never won a Truck race.
“As many times as I’ve come close, I should be used to these,” he said. “I’m kind of the bridesmaid at my own wedding.”
Ryan Preece finished third while playoff contenders Zane Smith and Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.
Hocevar’s team gambled with strategy by going to the pits early in the final stage, putting him in front with about 30 laps left but on tires that were much older than just about everyone else’s. And when Nemechek got fresh tires, the No. 4 quickly began tracking Hocevar down, biting away about a second per lap during a long green-flag run to the finish.
Eckes wound up getting the final playoff spot by three points over Hocevar and 10 ahead of Crafton.
“I went over to John Hunter and thanked him,” said Eckes, who was six points out of the last playoff spot when the race began. “He wrecked the hell out of me at Sonoma but I was his biggest fan tonight.”
Chandler Smith and Enfinger had already clinched places in the next round of the playoffs with wins earlier in the round, leaving six spots up in the air as the series made its second trip of the year to Kansas.
Nemechek, who was sixth in the spring race, was nearly unbeatable from the moment he unloaded, setting the pace during practice and earning the pole. He then cruised through the opening 30-lap stage to earn enough points to clinch his spot in the next round, then held off Ty Majeski again to win Stage 2 under caution.
Zane Smith also clinched his playoff spot after the first stage while Majeski wrapped up his after the second.
Everybody on pit road was left doing some tricky math when the race resumed with 65 laps to go: Ben Rhodes could clinch a spot by finishing 10th or better, Stewart Friesen could do the same with a top-20, and Eckes, Hocevar and Crafton found themselves in what amounted to a three-way fight for the final berth in the round of eight.
In dramatic fashion, Eckes wound up sneaking into the playoffs while Hocevar and Crafton were eliminated.
“We sucked all year,” Crafton said in a moment of brutal honesty. “Even getting into the playoffs was a feat in itself.”
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