BRISTOL, Tenn. — Five years ago, Christian Eckes paid attention as Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Erik Jones raced to the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship as a series rookie.
At that time, Eckes was a fresh-faced 14-year-old racing Legend Cars and late models, hoping to find a way to break into the national spotlight as he worked his way up the racing ladder.
Now 19, Eckes is with the same KBM organization that backed Jones during the 2015 season, and the Middletown, N.Y., native is hoping he can convert a strong playoff push into a similar result.
Eckes is the eighth-seeded driver in the 10-driver Truck Series playoff field, still seeking his first victory of 2020 as he works through the back half of his first full-time season in NASCAR national competition.
But the rookie feels he has a trump card up his sleeve that will allow him to not only contend for the championship, but win it during the Nov. 6 finale at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway.
“I believe we can do it for the same reason (Jones) did — the team,” Eckes told SPEED SPORT during Truck Series Playoff Media Day earlier this week. “Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) has been extremely good at winning championships pretty much the last 10 years and I have some experience as well fighting for an owner’s championship with him last year. It’s been a blast to work with him so far, and we have been close and have been running well at times.
“We just have to put it together for the next seven (races) and be perfect.”
Fugle coached Jones to the Truck Series crown in 2015 and did the same for Christopher Bell in 2017, the last time a Kyle Busch Motorsports driver won the championship.
Though they haven’t tasted victory together this year, Eckes said Fugle has been instrumental in his growth as a rookie in the Truck Series — especially considering the lack of practice and qualifying for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the motorsports industry.
“Just the experience he has is huge,” said Eckes of Fugle. “Working with William (Bryon) and Erik (Jones) and all of these young drivers … he’s gone through what I’m going through with the lack of experience multiple times. He’s keeping me up to speed on what to expect. That’s been pretty crucial and he’s a really smart guy. He’s hard working, like I’d consider myself. We’ve been working alongside of each other and getting as good as we can for the playoffs.
“Like I said, he’s won a lot of championships and, hopefully, we can do that again this year.”
Eckes hopes to savor the taste of victory at least once over the next seven weeks, knowing that while points are good in the grand scheme of things, winning is the only surefire way to advance through each round of the postseason.
“Obviously, wins will make it easy. There are a couple race tracks in both rounds that I feel really good about, and then really the (second) round I feel good about all of them,” Eckes noted. “Bristol and Vegas in this one are good, I think; you just can’t really feel good about Talladega. I feel good about our chances to go and win, though. Three of the races we’ve been close in this year I’ve ran second to Kyle at, and one of them I wrecked. I feel good about where we’re at.
“We haven’t won yet, but the playoffs and the energy that provides might help us push across that line. We’ll see what happens, but I feel pretty good about it.”
Despite the fact that KBM has more experience in Truck Series championship battles than any other organization — with seven owner titles and the pair of driver championships — Eckes doesn’t believe the No. 18 is the favorite to win the title.
“Honestly, I would consider myself as the underdog in this deal. We are the eighth seed. We have been close to winning multiple times, and probably should have won a few of those, so I feel like we are kind of undervalued at this point,” Eckes noted. “At the same time, we have seven races to go and prove that.
“Todd (Gilliland) has also been really good and has shown speed at times, and he has run good at Bristol as well, so I’d probably rank me and him at the top of that list. I’m ready to prove what we can do.”
The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, with the running of the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics.