BRISTOL, Tenn. — Chandler Smith knew he had to run the race of his life Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway if he wanted to keep his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship hopes alive.
Smith did just that, pushing his way past race-long leader Sheldon Creed during a restart with five laps left to earn his first Truck Series victory as well as a spot in the second round of the playoffs.
“I’ve really been tested here the last year or two. Tested my faith,” Smith said. “This is unbelievable. I can’t thank everybody behind me. This is just amazing.”
Creed, who had won the last two Truck Series races, dominated most of the race until the final caution flag of the race waved with 12 laps left when Austin Hill made contact with Josh Berry and crashed, taking out Hailie Deegan in the process.
Behind him were a pair of Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates, Smith and John Hunter Nemechek. Nemechek had made his way to second during a previous restart only to give up the position to Smith via the choose rule prior to a restart with less than 20 laps left.
At that point Smith, who entered the race seven points below the cutoff line to advance to the second round of the playoffs, knew his only chance to advance was to win the race. Smith made sure not to waste Nemechek’s gift as he battled tooth and nail with Creed during the final restart.
The two raced side-by-side for a lap as they traded paint and banged fenders, with Smith leading at the start/finish line with four laps left. The two made contact multiple times, with Smith eventually muscling Creed up and out of the groove to take the lead.
Creed fell through the field with a flat tire, leaving Smith and Nemechek at the front of the field. Nemechek drove by Smith after Smith’s contact with Creed, but Nemechek washed up the track out of turn four and Smith was able to drive back around him to regain the lead.
Smith would lead the final few laps to earn the win, which in turn bumped Todd Gilliland out of the second round of the playoffs. Austin Hill was also eliminated from the playoffs after his late-race crash.
“I feel like Truck racing is probably the hardest out of all three (NASCAR) series right now,” Smith said. “In 2019 I felt like I was really, really good. Nothing’s changed about me, the competition has gotten a lot harder. So I had to go to work and do a lot more, more studying, and it finally paid off.”
Creed said he knew contact was coming during the final laps, it was simply a question of when and how.
“I was kind of at their mercy. I had two teammates behind me. The 4 (Nemechek) was going to do whatever he had to do to let the 18 (Smith) be up front,” Creed said. “I kind of knew I was going to get hit at some point. I didn’t know where. He just kind of got into me off of (turn) two and slowed me down a little bit. I think that’s maybe what started to cut it (the tire) down.
“Then he ran me up the track in (turn) three, ran me up the track in back into (turn) one. Just do what he had to do to win.”
Grant Enfinger slipped past Nemechek in the final three laps to finish second, with Nemechek crossing the line in third. Stewart Friesen was fourth and Johnny Sauter was fifth.
Advancing to the second round of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs were Creed, Nemechek, Smith, Matt Crafton, Stewart Friesen, Ben Rhodes, Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar.