A few weeks back, I wrote that the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series was the most compelling of the three national divisions this season.
With the truck playoffs upon us, I don’t think that’s changed.
The eight-man playoff field is a lot different than what we would have imagined before the season-opener at Daytona. On the inside are Ross Chastain, who wasn’t even competing for points in the series to start the season, and Tyler Ankrum, who started the year on the sideline because he wasn’t old enough.
Chastain switched series eligibility and Ankrum received a waiver from NASCAR before both became first-time winners in the series.
On the outside are both fulltime Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers, Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton. Nobody would have imagined that prior to the season, nor would many have picked Ben Rhodes to miss the playoffs. Reigning ARCA champ Sheldon Creed also failed to qualify.
The playoffs get going this Thursday night at Bristol, so let’s take a quick look at the field:
The reigning series champion is with a different team this year, moving from Hattori Racing Enterprises to GMS Racing, but he’s still been competitive with a pair of wins at Iowa and Chicago. He’s only finished worse than seventh twice in the past two months.
The regular season champion hasn’t won this season, but has been highly consistent with a 7.6 average finish this year. He’s a former winner at Las Vegas and Talladega, and both of those tracks appear in the playoffs. That’s good fortune as he chases his first title.
After so many missed opportunities, Friesen finally picked up his first career win a couple weeks ago at Eldora. After a mishap at Pocono left him a little too close for comfort to the playoff line, that victory locked him in. He may not be done winning, either.
Hill got the biggest opportunity of his young career with a fulltime stint in the championship Hattori truck this year. He wasted no time taking advantage, winning the year’s opening race at Daytona. He also closed out the regular season with a Michigan win for needed momentum.
The Melon Man has lived the charmed life this year, scoring his first win at Kansas before declaring for truck points and winning twice more at Gateway and Pocono for upstart Niece Motorsports. As the only series regular with three wins, he has to be considered a favorite.
There were some tense moments for Crafton recently. Though he was second in points, he found himself in danger of missing the playoffs because he’s winless. The two-time champ probably won’t win a third without his first trip to victory lane in more than two years.
It’s a good thing for Sauter that he won early in the year at Dover, because the season has been a disaster ever since. He has finished outside the top 10 in seven of his nine races since, and also was suspended for the race at Gateway after intentionally wrecking Hill at Iowa.
It’s been a curious season for Ankrum, including his first career win at Kentucky. He missed the year’s first three races because he wasn’t old enough to drive, and Ankrum also had to start and park two races for NEMCO Motorsports because of sponsorship trouble at DGR-Crosley.
Justin Epley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-443-9042.