While most race fans turn their attention to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and its 16-man, 10-race playoffs that start this Sunday, drama is brewing in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Its eight-driver playoff field will be whittled down to six when the series visits Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of its first postseason elimination race, this Friday evening.
Only Brett Moffitt is locked into the second round, having won both of the first two playoff races at Bristol and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Ross Chastain has parlayed a third at Bristol and an eighth at CTMP into a fairly-safe second-place standing.
But beyond those two, all bets are off.
Third-place Stewart Friesen is 22 points behind Chastain. Seventh-place Johnny Sauter is just six points behind that, leaving Matt Crafton, Austin Hill and Grant Enfinger crammed into the standings between them.
Eighth-place Tyler Ankrum is a distant 12 points on further back of that group, meaning he’ll likely have to win to advance. But the other elimination spot realistically could be one of any five drivers.
Ankrum became a feel-good story, starting the season late because he was too young, only to lose his sponsorship, forcing him to start-and-park a few races before a surprise win at Texas.
But Crafton and Sauter are former champions, Enfinger and Friesen have been in the thick of the title hunt the past couple seasons, and Hill is the Daytona winner driving for the reigning championship team. Since February, those guys have been at the top of the conversation for the 2019 championship.
One of them will see that dream end prematurely on Friday night. Or, if Ankrum wins again — and his first win was on another mile-and-a-half at Kentucky — then two of the preseason favorites will be out of contention.
Those of them who do advance still will have their work cut out for them. Moffitt (four wins) and Chastain (three) have combined for seven wins and been the dominant series regulars, and everyone else will have to play catch-up to reach them.
But it’s win-and-in in the playoffs. Anything can happen, and we’re just getting started.
Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8943.