By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series driver Christian Eckes has a long list of accolades despite only being 19 years old.
The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver watched the NASCAR Cup Series growing up. However, he didn’t pay much attention to the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series in those early years in Middletown, N.Y.
Eckes wasn’t bitten by the racing bug until he watched a family friend race Bandleros at the local short track. Thinking it would be a fun time, he tried it out. There was little convincing that had to be done as his father was already a race fan.
“Honestly, it didn’t take much convincing,” explained Eckes. “My dad was always into racing. He never raced or anything, but he always enjoyed it.”
The driver of the No. 18 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota Tundra started his first race in 2010 at Bethel Motor Speedway in Swan Lake, N.Y. The start of Eckes’ racing career was rough with two DNFs.
Eckes reflected on his rough start:
“Not good at all. I think I finished last because I had to pull off. I lost brakes somehow and then came back the next day and did the same thing. So, not a good start for sure.”
At the track, drivers often find mentors throughout the garage. For some it’s a teammate, others it’s the series veteran, but for Eckes, it’s his team owner, Kyle Busch. The two-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion and Truck Series win leader has been a mentor to many in the series.
“At the track, it kind of depends,” admitted Eckes. “Honestly, Kyle has been a huge help for me this year. To be able to learn from him and work with him, it’s been a pleasure to say the least. So, I probably say Kyle if I have any questions and stuff like that.”
Away from the track, drivers often find mentors in family members. Eckes is no different as away from the track, he turns to his father. His father instilled a bold work ethic in him that has carried Eckes’ career to this point.
That work ethic has allowed Eckes’ talent to shine. As he showed his talent in Late Model competition, ARCA Menards Series competition, and most recently in the Truck Series. That competition factor has been one reason that Eckes continues to compete week in and week out.
Eckes pointed to the competition of racing as to what inspires him to compete:
“Really honestly the competition aspect of it. The fact that I can get better at something and can improve, do something that I love to do and, beat the other guy is the biggest thing for me. I feel like that’s the coolest part of racing is that it’s just one big competition and even more than other sports.”
Short Track Results
In Late Model Stock and Super Late Model competition, Eckes posted solid results. He finished fourth in points in his only full season in the CARS Tour with JR Motorsports. In 10 races in 2016, he earned five top-five and seven top-10 finishes.
That same season, Eckes moved to Toyota Racing Development. One of his first races with TRD was the 2016 Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.
Eckes started the prestigious Super Late Model race mid-pack. Behind on strategy, and caught in an accident, the No. 15 Quality Bus Sales machine was behind the preverbal eight ball. Wanting to make it up to his team, Eckes climbed from the back of the field up to fourth.
A couple of bad restarts saw him bounce up and down the running order between ninth and third. The luck turned around when Eckes avoided ‘the big one’ and lined up sixth. On the restart, the jumped to third, and then to second, behind John Hunter Nemechek with under five laps to go. The duo swapped the lead back and forth over the final laps. Eckes ultimately led just one lap, the final one.
The gravity of that win still has not set in for Eckes:
“It’s pretty cool. Honestly, I still don’t feel like it’s set in. I went Derby the first time in 2015 and you’re seeing Chase Elliott win, seeing the list of winners over the past few years is even pretty cool to see.
“That moment 2015 when I saw Chase Elliott in victory lane made me realize this race is huge. To be able to win it, like I said, I still don’t feel like it’s set in fully because it’s a prestigious race. But it was definitely cool to be a part of.”
ARCA Menards Series Results
Eckes first moved into the ARCA Series in 2015. He competed part-time until after his 18th birthday. In that time, he picked up three wins, 10 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes. Eckes also earned two pole positions.
2019 marked his first full-time season. However, life threw Eckes a curve ball. The then-Venturini Motorsports driver was sidelined at Salem Speedway by severe food poisoning that required a hospital stay. Harrison Burton filled in that weekend.
Eckes admitted that was a rough week, but found some positives in the experience:
“That was definitely a rough week or so in the hospital, bouncing from hospital to hospital. But, it’s really just about, what got me through it is the fact that I had a racecar there. It sucked obviously to watch Harrison race my car and not me racing it.
“In the same aspect, it kind of drove me a little bit more, gave me a little bit more of a roll. We’re in this battle. It made me appreciate the opportunities that I had more and just made sure that I was going to take advantage of that from each day on out because you never know when you’re going to lose it.”
The young driver and his ARCA team rallied. Eckes earned his first win of the 2019 season two races later at Fairgrounds Nashville Speedway. He then went on a charge throughout the rest of the season, finishing top-five in 10 of the remaining 15 races.
Eckes’ charge was in response to the gains his teammate, Michael Self had made. The duo dueled for the ARCA Championship Points lead for the remainder of the season.
After his 180-point lead evaporated, Eckes was cautiously optimistic:
“Luckily, we had a lot of good races and Michael had a lot of bad ones as well. So, the gap kind of fluctuated throughout the year. I mean, after Salem, I think we were 80-points back. We had a 100-point lead or something going into Salem. Had to stay there (second in points) the whole time until the last couple of races where we started stringing races together. We all put our heads down and said, ‘all right, we got to get our shit together here, especially when we had our couple issues.’”
The races Eckes strung together to finish the 2019 ARCA season were nothing short of career-making. In the final seven races he either finished second or won. That put the up-and-coming driver well ahead of Self by season’s end, earning him the ARCA Menards Series Championship.
The ARCA Championship was never out of the realm of possibility for Eckes:
“I think at Salem with two or three races to go, the gap was still 80-points. Even at that point I still felt like we had a shot at it still felt like it was possible.”
Truck Series Results
Eckes’ Truck Series career may just be starting, but he has already made waves. In 14 starts, he has three top-five and seven top-10 finishes. Eckes also has three pole positions.
The 2020 Truck Series Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender was a part of the 2019 KBM team that won the Truck Series Owner’s Championship. While Busch and Greg Biffle earned all six of the No. 51 Toyota Tundra’s wins in 2019, Eckes was pivotal in the Owner’s Championship hunt.
Eckes contributed to three of the No. 51’s 14 top-five finishes and four of it’s 17 top-10 finishes. He was behind the wheel of the No. 51 Mobil 1 Toyota Tundra in the 2019 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Eckes’ third-place finish in the Ford EcoBoost 200 left the No. 51 on top of the final Owner’s Points Championship Standings.
For Eckes, to be a part of that championship winning team was much more of a confidence booster.
“It was definitely cool. I actually got the championship ring. To be a part of something like that and be a part of a Truck championship before I go to full-time was cool. Definitely was a huge confidence booster and, it gave me confidence going back to the Truck Series in general.”
The 2020 season has had promising runs for Eckes. However, incidents in both Truck races have prevented him from showing the full promise of those runs. While he would love to earn a victory at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway because he was successful in his two previous starts there, the 2020 season is on hold.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the racing world to a halt. However, it has put the focus on iRacing and NASCAR’s efforts there in eNASCAR. The second eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will see Eckes attempt to ‘race his way in’ with the virtual No. 81 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota Camry.