The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Series is back in action for tonight’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at the Kentucky Speedway. Here are the storylines for the race.
Ben Rhodes hoping the return home leads to Victory Lane
One year ago, Louisville, Kentucky, native Ben Rhodes scored his second NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory in front of his home crowd.
A late gamble in the pits on a fuel-only stop gave him the track position to lead the final 24 laps and hold off Stewart Friesen for the win.
And he’s yearning to get in Victory Lane again. So far in 2019, the 22-year-old ThorSport Racing driver has finished runner-up three times – at Martinsville, Kansas and Iowa. He’s had two additional top-five performances for five total on the year and eight top-10 finishes in the 12 races run.
Rhodes sits fifth in points and currently would be the final driver in the Playoffs on points if Ross Chastain is able to work his way into the top 20 in points.
Brett Moffitt looking to conquer Kentucky in hopes of championship repeat
It’s certainly looking like Brett Moffitt wants to hoist a second consecutive NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship trophy over his head in Miami.
And it’s also certainly looking like he’ll get that chance.
After 12 races into the 23-race season, Moffitt has seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes – on track to meet or beat his totals from his title run a year ago (13 top fives, 13 top 10s). He’s slightly off pace in wins (two thus far in 2019 – Iowa and Chicagoland, six total in 2018), as he had three wins through 11 races last year (Atlanta, Iowa, Chicagoland).
Before the Gander Trucks look last weekend off, Moffitt recorded his second win of the season at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway. And the series return to another 1.5-mile track this weekend at Kentucky Speedway for the Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 (Thursday, July 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kentucky is the only non-superspeedway track at which Moffitt does not have a top 10, so he’ll be looking to change that history next weekend. (He has three starts apiece at Daytona and Talladega without a top 10.) Overall, four of his nine wins have come at circuits that match Kentucky in length, and he’s also tallied nine top-five and 11 top-10 finishes at 1.5-milers.
The “Melon Man” is on a roll
Heading into Kentucky Speedway for this weekend’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Ross Chastain has closed the gap to the top 20 in the points standings to 10 points.
Prior to his seventh-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway the last time the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series raced, Chastain sat 38 points outside the top 20 – which is the mark he must meet in the standings in order to lock into the Playoffs after his postseason-qualifying win at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
The driver of the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet has only finished outside the top 10 once this season – following his disqualification at Iowa Speedway. In the seven races this season at 1.5-mile tracks, like Kentucky, Chastain has posted an average finish of 7.3. And that is highlighted by a win at Kansas Speedway in May – which goes in the record books, but doesn’t count towards the Playoffs because it happened before he declared for Gander Trucks points.
In the four races in which Chastain has collected Gander Trucks points in the standings, he has averaged 30 points per race with a high of 45 in his win at Gateway and a low of five points following the Iowa race.
And with four races remaining in the regular season, Chastain’s chances of jumping into the top 20 looks pretty good.
Picturing the Gander Trucks Playoffs
What’s clear about the Playoff picture with four races to go in the regular season is that Brett Moffitt, Austin Hill and Johnny Sauter are locked into the postseason with wins…and all three are well within the top 20 in points.
The fuzzy edge of the picture involves Ross Chastain. The driver of the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet waited until just before the ninth race of the season (Texas in June) to declare for NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series points. Which put him in the position of having to both win a race and run consistently enough to elevate into the top 20 in points.
He got the postseason-qualifying win at World Wide Technology Raceway (his Kansas win was before he declared for series points, therefore doesn’t count for the Playoffs). And now he just has to overcome a 10-point gap between his current spot in the points (24th) to meet that top-20 threshold.
Assuming Chastain is able to overcome that deficit, that leaves four additional spots for a new winner or for drivers to get in on points.
Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes maintain a pretty firm grasp on those four slots in points. That would place all four ThorSport Racing trucks into the post-season and would shut Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers out of Playoff contention.
If Chastain is unable to climb into the top 20, assuming the points remain the same and there are no other new winners, KBM’s Harrison Burton would climb into that eighth and final Playoff spot.
Enfinger still on point
Twelve races into the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, the top two in the points standings – ThorSport Racing’s Grant Enfinger and Halmar Friesen Racing’s Stewart Friesen – are still searching for their first win of the season.
Enfinger sits 52 points ahead of Friesen and is in prime position to capture the guaranteed Playoff position awarded to the regular season champion regardless of wins – as well as the 20 Playoff points that accompany. Those extra 20 Playoff points can make the difference in advancing through the postseason.
Brett Moffitt is quickly catching up to Friesen due to his wins at Iowa and Chicagoland, and sits just one point back of him in third place. Prior to the win in the Windy City, Moffitt was in fifth place in the points…15 back from Friesen.
Friesen should have confidence returning to Kentucky Speedway this weekend, as it was the site of a runner-up finish to Ben Rhodes.
He has the best finish at Kentucky of the trio atop the points. Enfinger’s best result in three starts was sixth last year while Moffitt hasn’t finished better than 14th in his three visits to the 1.5-mile track.
Kyle Busch Motorsports continues to develop talent
So far in 2019, Kyle Busch Motorsports has rotated seven different drivers behind the wheel of their No. 51 and No. 46 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series entries.
One of those drivers is team owner Kyle Busch, who won all five of the races he ran. Another is 49-year-old 2000 Gander Trucks champion Greg Biffle, who ended a two-and-a-half year hiatus from the sport with his start, and win, at Texas in June.
But the other five drivers who have jumped into those two KBM trucks have an average age just shy of 19-years old…and have posted an average finish of 10.6 in their 11 combined starts.
Christian Eckes (18-years old), Riley Herbst (20), Brandon Jones (22), Raphael Lessard (17) and Chandler Smith (17) have also put together three top-five and five top-10 finishes between them – as well as a pole to start the season in Daytona by Eckes.
(Of note, Lessard also ran a race for DGR-Crosley at Iowa, finishing ninth.)
The quintet has a best finish of second by Jones in the most recent race at Chicagoland. The worst effort by the squad was a 22nd-place effort at Daytona by pole-sitter Eckes, who was caught up in a crash near the mid-point of the race.
With the exception of that race, none of these five drivers has a finish worse than 15th in a KBM truck this season.
And we can’t forget the pair of full-time drivers in KBM equipment – Harrison Burton in the No. 4 Toyota is 18-years old while Todd Gilliland in the No. 4 truck is 19-years old. Burton has five top-five finishes while Gilliland has two this year. Both have tallied seven top 10s.
This weekend at Kentucky, KBM is fielding the No. 51 Toyota with Jones behind the wheel. It will mark his fifth trip to the track with the Gander Trucks and his second in the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports entry. He’s finished in the top 10 in all four previous starts, including a bests finish of runner-up in 2017. Last year, with KBM, he finished fourth.
In the other two KBM trucks in the field this weekend, regulars Burton and Gilliland will be behind the wheel.
Burton will be making his maiden trip to the track. But in nine career series races at 1.5-mile tracks, he has three top-five and six top-10 finishes – including placing fourth at Chicagoland a couple weeks ago. Gilliland has one start at Kentucky, a seventh-place effort a year ago. He has 14 total starts on 1.5-milers – putting together two top fives and nine top 10s.