HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Aside from the race winner and the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion, there was a third celebratory party at the end of Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200.
Kyle Busch collected his record-extending seventh Truck Series owner’s championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on the strength of a third-place finish by driver Christian Eckes in the season finale.
Eckes led for 26 laps Friday night, using a strategic pit stop for tires near the end of the second stage to leapfrog the competition when he stayed out during the ensuing stage break to gain control of the race.
The 18-year-old from Middletown, N.Y., assumed the point on lap 64 and then, despite tires that were six laps older than most of his competition, maintained the point for roughly a third of the final stage.
Eckes finally gave up the race lead to eventual winner Austin Hill on lap 90, but remained in the mix all the way through his final pit stop, after which he cycled out third and remained there to the finish.
While he couldn’t track down Hill or runner-up Matt Crafton, the fact that Crafton’s ThorSport Racing team wasn’t in the owner’s playoff mix despite having a driver’s title on the line was to Eckes’ benefit.
That meant that Eckes could pace himself in the final laps, with a comfortable five-second margin over Ross Chastain allowing him to cruise home and deliver Busch a chunk of hardware in South Florida.
“I thought they ran a great race, and Rudy is one of the best at being able to execute some pit calls and some strategies throughout any sort of race,” Busch said afterward. “He’s no dummy; that’s why he’s won this owner’s championship for us four or five times. I know Eric Phillips was a couple of those times, but it’s pretty special to be able to continue to do that.
“Eckes did a really good job of running a smooth race today and being able to keep us in position without getting too flustered throughout the event,” he added. “To come home with a solid third‑place finish will get him some really good feedback and good notes for what he needs to do here next year.”
Despite accomplishing his and the team’s goal for the night, Eckes was still slightly disappointed that he wasn’t able to end the season in victory lane with the No. 51 Mobil 1 Toyota Tundra.
“I struggled for most of the race honestly. This place is really tough,” noted Eckes, who will drive full time for KBM next year. “It got a little better there when we were out front. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) made a great call to get us that track position. We were able to lead some laps and come home third.
“It’s awesome to get another championship for these guys, but now I’m just ready for 2020.”
A podium result did little to dampen the overall sweetness of the season for the No. 51 team, however.
Six wins overall, including five with Busch himself and one more with former series champion Greg Biffle, led the series and meant that one of the staple teams of the Truck ranks established itself as the dominant force once again.
“I think it shows our depth,” Busch noted. “I think it shows our ability to be able to go out there and still be successful no matter how many different drivers we have behind the wheel of our trucks. To have Christian Eckes, Brandon Jones, Alex Tagliani, Greg Biffle, Chandler Smith, the Herbst kid from Vegas, and some idiot who drove five races named Busch … and all of us have success is pretty special.
“It’s pretty awesome, in my mind, to have Rudy and those guys do such a good job with that many different drivers and to go out there and get solid finishes with so many of them.”
Busch admitted, however, that out of a roster which included himself, Biffle, Xfinity Series regular Brandon Jones, Canadian road-course ace Alex Tagliani, and young guns Riley Herbst, Chandler Smith and Eckes, he wouldn’t have bet on Eckes as the driver who would give his team another owner’s title.
“We were obviously excited about the opportunity to go race for another owner’s championship this year, but to be able to come out on top is sweet,” Busch said. “It was weird, though. We were looking at the driver lineups and when we were coming down to the final of the season, we were like, ‘well, Eckes is going to be our guy,’ and I said, ‘Eckes is going to be our guy?’
“But he really did a good job executing all night and just ran a great, smart race to keep us in the position that we needed to be in,” he continued. “He ran a good season in the ARCA series and was able to come out (as the) champion over there, but he’s gotten some good experience at the mile‑and‑a‑half tracks and he’s gotten some good experience at Pocono, Talladega, Daytona and bigger speedways like that. I just wasn’t sure how he’d run here, given that Homestead is different than most intermediates.
“He took to it real well, though, and we’re proud of that and proud of this owner’s title.”
KBM won previous Truck Series owner’s championships in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 prior to its seventh title as an organization on Friday night.