The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Series begins the quest for the championship on Thursday night for the UNOH 200 at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.
We’re talkin’ ‘bout Playoffs
Thursday’s UNOH 200 (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the start of the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs and eight drivers – Brett Moffitt, Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen, Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Tyler Ankrum – will battle it out over the next seven races for the series title.
Moffitt enters the postseason as the top seed, carrying 22 Playoff points following two wins (Iowa, Chicago) and two stage wins. Regular season champion Enfinger trails just slightly with 19 Playoff points – four from stage wins and the remainder as the bonus earned by finishing atop the points standings after Michigan.
Friesen (Eldora), Hill (Daytona, Michigan), Chastain (Gateway, Pocono – Playoff-eligible wins; Kansas – prior to declaring for Gander Trucks points), Sauter (Dover) and Ankrum (Kentucky) all made their way to the postseason with wins.
ThorSport Racing teammates Enfinger and Crafton, who finished first and third in the regular season points, respectively, raced their way in on consistent finishes throughout the season.
Bristol Motor Speedway, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Las Vegas Motor Speedway make up the trio of tracks in the opening Round of 8 in the Playoffs. Two drivers will be eliminated from title contention following Las Vegas, and the Round of 6 will consist of Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway and ISM Raceway. That will narrow the field down to the Championship 4 who will race for all the marbles at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Looking back on Gander Trucks Playoff history
The 2019 edition of the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs will be the fourth season using the elimination-style, three-round system to determine a champion.
Johnny Sauter won the initial showdown in Miami in 2016, holding off Matt Crafton, Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters to claim the crown. Bell turned the tables the next year, bettering Sauter, Crafton and Austin Cindric for the title.
And last year, Brett Moffitt won the race and the championship with Hattori Racing Enterprises, defeating Sauter, Justin Haley and Noah Gragson in South Florida.
Sauter is the only driver who has made it to the Championship 4 in each season of the elimination-style Playoff system. Crafton and Bell have each been there twice.
Austin Hill, Ross Chastain and Tyler Ankrum are all making their Gander Trucks Playoffs debuts this week. Moffitt, Stewart Friesen and Grant Enfinger each have one previous postseason appearance (last year). Sauter and Crafton lead the field, having qualified for the Playoffs in each year of the current format’s existence.
This year’s Playoffs features three previous series champions, as in addition to Sauter and Moffitt who won under the current format, Crafton captured back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, prior to the introduction of the elimination-style Playoff grid.
Prior performances at Bristol
Only one of the 2019 Gander Truck Playoff drivers has visited Victory Lane at this weekend’s venue – Bristol Motor Speedway – and he did it just a year ago. Johnny Sauter enters “The Last Great Colosseum” as the defending winner and hopes to repeat to guarantee his spot in the Round of 6.
And only one of the Playoff drivers has yet to race at Bristol – Sunoco Rookie of the Year Tyler Ankrum.
Matt Crafton leads the group with 16 starts (five more than Sauter’s 11) at Bristol. He has four top fives and 10 top 10s, with a pair of runner-up finishes (2009, 2017). Sauter has the win, five top-five and seven top-10 finishes.
Of the rest of the contenders, the most appearances any driver has at Bristol is three – by Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen and Austin Hill.
Chastain’s starts are spread out a bit – he raced there in 2012 and 2013, posting his best Bristol finish of third in that second start. He was 12th in last year’s race. Meanwhile, Friesen had rough outings with results of 22nd or worse in his first two starts – but finished second to Sauter last season.
Hill is the lone Playoff contender with Bristol experience who has not tallied a top 10 at the track. In his three starts, his average finish is 20.7.
Brett Moffitt and Grant Enfinger each have two races under their belts at Bristol – and each has a top-five finish. Enfinger was fourth and 10th in his two starts while Moffitt finished second (2016) and 18th (last year).
The teams behind the contenders
ThorSport Racing leads the garage with three drivers contending for a championship in the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs. And they are the only team with more than one driver qualified for the postseason.
In all, six different teams are fielding Playoff drivers – and all six teams won at least one race during the regular season.
Although ThorSport Racing’s Grant Enfinger and Matt Crafton secured their Playoff berths on points without a win, their teammate Johnny Sauter visited Victory Lane at Dover earlier this year.
GMS Racing (Brett Moffitt – two wins), Halmar Friesen Racing (Stewart Friesen – one win), Hattori Racing Enterprises (Austin Hill – two wins), Niece Motorsports (Ross Chastain – two Playoff-eligible wins, three overall) and DGR-Crosley (Tyler Ankrum – one win) make up the balance of the teams fielding Playoff contenders.
Tyler Ankrum locks up Sunoco Rookie of the Year title early
Heading into last weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway, Harrison Burton had a 56-point lead over Sheldon Creed in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings (506 to 450). Tyler Dippel was third with 337 points while Tyler Ankrum had 322 points in fourth.
But that all changed at the drop of the checkered flag in the Irish Hills.
As luck would have it for Ankrum, he is the only Sunoco Rookie contender who qualified for the Playoffs, therefore he has already clinched the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title with seven races to go.
This is due to the points reset that happened at the beginning of the Playoffs, guaranteeing Ankrum would finish the season with no less than 2000 points.
Potential Bristol spoilers come in form of part-time entries
A pair of young rising stars and two seasoned veterans make up a quartet of drivers to watch as they attempt to play the role of spoiler this weekend to the Playoff drivers’ postseason hopes and dreams.
Seventeen-year old ARCA Menards Series standout Chandler Smith heads to the half-mile oval to make his third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series start of the season. In two races so far with Kyle Busch Motorsports, he has recorded a pole (in his debut at Iowa) and two top-10 finishes (eighth at Iowa, fourth at Gateway). He’ll be behind the wheel of the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota on Thursday night.
And he’s shown that he has the coordinates to Victory Lane plugged into his GPS in ARCA – in only 18 starts over the past two seasons, he’s collected six race trophies, including four of the last six races he’s entered. (His participation has been limited by age at the larger tracks.) He has also recorded eight poles, including in the first four races he entered.
Also making is his series debut at Thunder Valley will be Raphael Lessard, as the 18-year-old Quebec, Canada, native will be starting his fourth Gander Trucks race. He made his debut at Martinsville with KBM, finishing 14th, and then ran a second race with the outfit at Dover, recording an 11th-place result. His third start came with DGR-Crosley at Iowa, where he notched his first top 10, placing ninth.
He will return to Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment this week, piloting the No. 46 entry for the team.
Parker Kligerman will be making his second series start this season and 78th overall in a truck, driving the No. 75 Henderson Motorsports Chevrolet this weekend. Kligerman has a pair of wins in the Gander Trucks and brings a pretty successful track record into Bristol. In five starts, he’s posted an average finish of 8.8, highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2012. Additionally, he finished fourth in this race last season.
And Timothy Peters will be racing for the fourth time this season in the Gander Trucks. A veteran with 246 series races and 11 wins under his belt, he’ll be driving the No. 92 Ricky Benton Racing Enterprises Ford.
Peters has climbed up into Victory Lane at “The Last Great Colosseum,” having taken the win in 2012. He has a total of three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Bristol, following up his win with a runner-up result in 2013.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Etc.
Manufacturer standings: At the conclusion of the regular season, Toyota holds a 19-point lead over Chevrolet in the manufacturer standings (600 – 581). Ford is third with 533 points. Toyota also leads in wins this season, totaling nine victories. Chevrolet has visited Victory Lane six times while Ford has one win.
Owner’s championship outlook: Of the eight trucks contending for the 2019 Gander Trucks driver’s championship, seven are also entered in the fight for the owner’s title. The only outlier is the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota – without a win on the season, they were replaced by the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota entry, which scored a post-season qualifying win at Texas Motor Speedway with Greg Biffle in June. That truck will be piloted by Chandler Smith this weekend.