By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Over the past four seasons, Grant Enfinger has piloted the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford F-150 in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and from the very beginning, he’s had long time crew Jeff Hensley calling the shots.
After five wins, including a victory last week at Martinsville Speedway, the duo is now going to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway with an opportunity to exit this Friday’s race hoisting the series title.
Should they get the job done in Arizona, it will be the Kentucky-based team’s second straight championship and the driver/crew chief combo’s first. Something that’s eluded them following a disappointing playoff run last season where Enfinger finished seventh in points after winning the regular season championship.
The elusiveness goes further for Hensley as he’s not won a NASCAR national touring title in 30 years. That title came when he was Chuck Bown’s championship winning crew chief in Busch Grand National (now known as the Xfinity Series) competition.
Hensley’s closest taste to a Truck Series title came was in 2007 when his driver Mike Skinner entered the finale at Homestead with a 29-point lead over future NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday.
Skinner was leading the race up until Lap 25 when a flat tire and missing pit lane shattered any shot of capturing his second Truck Series title. Hornaday, who eventually had Hensley atop the pit box as his crew chief from 2011-12, went on to win his third of four championships by 54 points.
When Hensley was asked what it would mean to lead Enfinger to a championship and snap his 30-year drought, the veteran crew chief noted how special the moment would be for him and his 35-year old driver.
“Oh lord, I don’t know how to describe it to be honest. I think it would be almost 30 years between championships for myself, but that would be huge. That’s the only way to describe it,” Hensley responded. “Everybody’s at the top of their game at this level and that’s why it’s so hard to win these things. To have that opportunity to go there and know you have a shot to win it.
“I can’t think of anybody more deserving than Grant to win the championship. If I’m fortunately to be a part of that, it would be great.”
During Championship 4 Media Day Wednesday, Enfinger said it’ll be huge getting the job done for not just Hensley or himself, but for Duke and Rhonda Thorson, and Mike Curb.
The organization has never won the owners championship since fielding trucks since 1996 as Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 team won in each of Matt Crafton three championship seasons. Therefore, the stakes are even higher for ThorSport, hoping to collect both trophies.
“It would be even bigger for us to bring the owners championship home for them for everything they’ve done in this series for so long,” said Enfinger. “I’ll be honest, maybe if I look back on it where we’re fortunately enough to win this championship, maybe I’ll look back at it differently.
“Right now, these are the guys that took a chance on us and paired us together. We want to make them proud and the owners title is one of the few things that Duke and Rhonda have not yet accomplish in this series. That’s why I think the owners championship would be more important.”
Beforehand, the Alabama racer mentioned having several people in No. 98 squad since 2017 has made the positives more enriching because they’ve been through the highs and lows.
“It’s definitely been a mixed bag this year. It’s been so up and down where the last two years, I feel like we’ve been the model of consistency, but we haven’t gotten enough wins as a group together,” said Enfinger following his Martinsville victory last Friday. “This year we’ve clicked off a few wins, but it’s been up-and-down. We came into Martinsville way outside of making it on points, so we had to win.
“We’ve been in that position before as a group. We’ve kind of rode the roller coaster together, so we know what disappointment feels like. We all know what this celebration feels like. It’s pretty cool once you’ve been that long with somebody and experience those highs and lows together. Four years and we’ve been through a lot.”
Another challenge the No. 98 team had to overcome is the COVID-19 pandemic axing practice and qualifying sessions because without extra track time, it’s thrown them into a curve.
Hensley commented they’ve been able to put their hard work into full effect which led them to four victories (Daytona, Atlanta, Richmond and Martinsville).
Despite those victories, there’s no guarantee on how everything is going to unfold in the Lucas Oil 150, a race Enfinger finished fifth last year, with Martinsville being an excellent reminder that certain pieces of the puzzle must fall in their favor.
“We’ve had moments where we look at each other like, ‘What are we doing?’ Then we had moments like Martinsville, Richmond and Daytona where we look, ‘Wow! We’re at our game,” Hensley exclaimed.
“This whole no practice deal has sort of thrown us a curve, but we have been able to rely on our notes and what’s worked for us. We basically came here kind of like what we were at Richmond and had a dominant truck at Richmond. I don’t know if we had a dominant truck (last Friday), but we had a truck capable of maintaining track position.”
The final 150 laps of the 22-race championship tour will commence at 8:00 p.m. ET on FS1. Enfinger will roll off first by virtue of the starting lineup format which NASCAR confirmed Wednesday.