The frustration in Christian Eckes’ cool-down lap communication to his team was telling, a groaning, angst-heavy curse followed by an admission that he hasn’t quite reached the level of Kyle Busch — his mentor, teammate and team owner. The post-race thumbs-down for the FOX Sports cameras gave his emotions a visual.
What Eckes had to show for his Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway was a career-best second place in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. The rookie led four times for 52 laps, but his Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 18 Toyota came up just shy of carrying him to a breakthrough victory in his first full season as Busch scooted away in a 10-lap sprint to the end.
“I definitely gave it my best effort,” said Eckes, who claimed his second top-five finish of the season. “Looking back on it, there’s probably a few things I could’ve done just to side-draft him and try to clear him, but I did my best. He’s so damn fast at aero games, and I’m not yet. So I’ve got a little bit of learning to do for Kansas, but overall really proud of my team.”
Eckes started seventh and made gains through handling adjustments that helped his truck come to life in the second and third stages. In the final green-flag cycle of pit stops, Busch provided a lesson on entering and exiting pit road, putting his truck out front by a significant margin.
Busch led by nearly four seconds before a late caution period bunched the field for the dash to the end.
“Led a bunch of laps, missed my marks on pit road I guess a little bit,” Eckes said. “I thought I hit it right, but Kyle was a straightaway ahead of me by the time I got out of the corner. It is what it is.”
Busch eventually took the upper hand in their late-race scramble, fending off Eckes by .777 seconds at the finish. But he remained impressed by the 19-year-old driver’s growth, a development curve unaided by extra track time from practice or qualifying in the series’ six races since COVID-19 at-track protocols were established.
His previous career-best was third, achieved three times in the last two seasons. Saturday, Eckes did one better.
“What can you say about Christian, he‘s getting better each week,” Busch said. “Every time out, they get that chemistry going more and more with (crew chief) Rudy Fugle and those guys. Real proud of that Safelite Tundra running fast and being there to challenge us at the end.”