Christian Eckes returned to victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) in thrilling fashion to give McAnally-Hilgemann Racing the organization’s first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (NCTS) victory on Saturday afternoon. The driver of the No. 19 NAPA Auto Care Chevrolet Silverado RST reclaimed the points lead after racking up 50 points and capturing his second stage win of the year. The victory gives Eckes and his team a virtual lock to the NCTS playoffs for the third time in his career.
The Middletown, N.Y., native started the 137-lap event from the fourth position after inclement weather washed out qualifying on Friday afternoon. Eckes boldly asserted himself as a threat by taking the lead on the opening lap and dominated Stage 1. The NAPA Auto Care Chevrolet paced the field on the outside of the AMS high banks until a caution flew on lap 24. Crew chief Charles Denike kept Eckes on track to go for the stage win, and the call paid off. Eckes held off all challengers on lap 30 to earn 10 points and one playoff point with his second stage win of 2023 after leading every lap.
Eckes pitted under the stage caution for right side tires and restarted 20th on lap 38 as the running order flip-flopped due to contrasting pit strategies. Eckes stayed in the lead draft for the majority of Stage 2 and ran as high as ninth but was scored 14th at the end of the segment on lap 60. Denike put four tires on Eckes’ Chevrolet, which allowed him to restart 11th on lap 68. Another quick caution on lap 79 offered Eckes the chance to top off with fuel for the final run, but he was caught speeding on pit road.
Eckes started his march back to the front from 28th position on lap 84 and took advantage of every opportunity to claw his way back into contention. A restart on lap 103 saw him rocket to 11th, which included a four-wide maneuver to cut through the pack. Eckes worked the less-preferred bottom lane to perfection as he capitalized on the restarts to crack the top five on lap 121, and he claimed the runner-up spot on lap 123. A late caution set up an overtime restart. Eckes elected to take the bottom of the front row, which proved to be the winning decision. Eckes traded the lead with fellow Chevrolet driver Nick Sanchez on the overtime restart and used a surge of momentum on the final lap to pull alongside for the lead down the backstretch. Eckes held the lead on the final lap as a caution waved coming out of Turn 4 to secure the victory, his third playoff berth, and his first victory at AMS.
“Just really happy,” Eckes said. “Thanks to Charles (Denike), everybody on this team. They work so damn hard and this is what makes it all worth it. Thanks to NAPA, Chevrolet, everybody. I’m pumped. It’s going to be a really good year.
“I think this is just what I kind of figured was going to happen coming here. I knew the potential of Charles (Denike), and I knew the potential of the race team, and Bill’s passion to win, so it made my decision to come here really easy.”
Start / Finish: 4 / 1
Points Standing / Total: 1st / 151 pts.
Next Race: Saturday, March 25, Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas
How to Watch or Listen: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM