It’s hard to believe that the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs are already here. It seems like not too long ago we just began the year at Daytona International Speedway in February and saw the dawn of a new season.
With the Playoffs beginning at Bristol, let’s take an in-depth look at how we got here and the drivers who have a chance at the title. For some, it will be their first time chasing the title in the Truck Series while others will have the experience and understand the pressure they will feel when the points get tight.
- Brett Moffitt – Seeded in the first position is 2018 Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt. Moffitt returns for another chance to defend his title, something that rarely happens in the Truck Series. The last time someone went back-to-back in the Truck Series was Matt Crafton in 2013 and 2014.
How he got here – Moffitt was awarded the win at Iowa after Ross Chastain failed the post-race inspection and had his win taken away. This automatically gave Moffitt another chance at the title. However, it wasn’t until Chicago when Moffitt earned his win the hard way. With the new team switch, it seemed as though the Grimes, Iowa native had a slow start as do most drivers when they switch to new teams at the beginning of the season. Still, despite the 26th place finish at Daytona, the GMS Racing driver has been solid all season with the exception of Fort Worth in March, Charlotte in May and the 29th place finish at Eldora. Otherwise, Moffitt has had nine top fives and 11 top-10 finishes with only one DNF and an average finish of 9.1. He hasn’t won as much as he did last season at this point in the year but Moffitt has quietly been a contender week-in and week-out and sometimes being quiet is a good thing.
Chances – I give Moffitt a 90% chance of winning the title. Very few drivers have been able to win back-to-back titles in their career in the Truck Series. Ron Hornaday is the only driver to win four titles but that was over a span of years. In 2017, Johnny Sauter had the chance to win the title again after winning in 2016 but he never really had the truck to compete in the race for another title.
Concern – I don’t have any concern with Moffitt going back to these tracks that he was really successful at last year. During the 2018 Playoffs, Moffitt had an average finishing position of 5.4 and won at ISM Raceway and Homestead. I think Moffitt will be fine since GMS Racing does have experience in winning the championship with Sauter in 2016.
Notable – Moffitt has 22 playoff points and has led 96 laps during his playoff run.
- Grant Enfinger – The Alabama native has been on a roll this year even without winning a race. It has been a career year so far for the No. 98 ThorSport Racing driver who is making his second appearance in the Playoffs.
How he got here – Consistency. Enfinger got to the Playoffs based on consistency throughout the season. Rarely has a race fan found him in the DNF column with only one to date and it was a freak occurrence at Kentucky. Enfinger comes into the Playoffs with seven top fives, 13 top-10 finishes and two poles. By winning the regular season title at Michigan, this gave the ThorSport Racing driver an automatic lock for the Playoffs and an additional 15 points that will come in handy down the road. Enfinger has an average finishing position of 7.6 with four stage wins in 2019. This gives Enfinger 19 points heading into the Playoffs, just three points behind first.
Chances – 80%. The Playoffs are based on winning and advancing although sometimes a driver can get lucky and make it into the next round on points. This is the second time Enfinger has made the Playoffs. While he did have one win in the Playoffs at Las Vegas last year, I would like to see more out of him in terms of wins.
Concerns – As I previously mentioned, I would like to see more wins out of the No. 98 team. If it wasn’t for the automatic lock for the series points leader after Michigan, Enfinger would find himself seeded lower in the Playoffs and quite possibly missing the Playoffs, which he did in 2017 and wound up 11th in the standings. In 2018, he was only able to earn three top fives in the Playoffs and failed to advance to the championship race at Homestead. But there is one encouraging stat. At the championship race in Homestead in 2018, Enfinger won the pole and wound up second after winning Stage 1 and leading 53 laps. While there are many years left for Enfinger, I believe this will be his best chance to win his first championship.
Notable – In 2018 the Alabama native led 114 laps and had an average finish of 9.8.
- Stewart Friesen – Friesen has had a strong season for the most part. Similar to 2018, he had multiple opportunities and put himself in position to win before finally getting that elusive first victory at Eldora. Friesen comes into the Playoffs with 14 playoff points and is seeded third.
How he got here – Friesen posted his first career series win at Eldora a few weeks ago. He also has nine top fives and 11 top-10 finishes and one pole at Martinsville earlier this season. With those numbers, the Canadian native has an average finish of 8.9 with 203 laps led.
Chances – 75 %. Friesen has been great this year and the stats reflect that. He has tied the top fives that he had last year. The only area where he is down is top-10s as he has 11 this year compared to his 16 last season. Other than that, he has improved his average finishing position from last year’s 9.1. It’s hard to believe that just two years ago in 2017, he withdrew from two races and is now competing in his second Playoffs.
Concern – DNFs. I am concerned about the DNFs that Friesen has accumulated. He has three, at Daytona, Texas and Pocono. Last year he only had two DNFs. While Friesen has been strong during the season, it seems it has been top five or bust for the No. 52 team. One week, it’s a second place finish while another week it’s a 12th place finish at Dover or 15th at Kansas. From Iowa through Chicago, he was able to get top five finishes before wrecking out again at Pocono. I’m not sure if we would be talking about Friesen in the Playoffs had he not won at Eldora. I would like to see a little more consistency out of the No. 52 Halmar Racing team in order to provide more of a threat for the championship.
Notable – During the 2018 Playoffs, Friesen scored just two top fives and five top-10 finishes but was eliminated in the Round of 8. He wound up seventh in the championship standings. His average finish was 8.2 and he led 29 laps. The Playoffs are all about winning and that’s what Friesen needs to do more of if he wants to advance and move on.
- Austin Hill – Hill is making his first Truck Series playoff appearance this season driving the No. 16 Hattori Racing Toyota. The Georgia native comes in with 12 playoff points and is seeded fourth.
How he got here – By winning at Daytona and Michigan, Hill was able to lock himself into his first playoff appearance. Throughout the season, Hill has no stage wins, has led 121 laps, has four top fives and eight top-10 finishes along with two poles. This gives him an average finishing position of 14.2.
Chances – 70%. Hill has never competed in the Playoffs but does have experience at the upcoming tracks which could help him. What could help him, even more, is driving for the team that won the championship last year with a team that was strong and consistent in the Playoffs.
Concern – The only thing I am concerned about is Hill not having the playoff experience in order to help him throughout the eight-race chase to the championship. The Hattori Racing driver has never had the opportunity to get a feel for what it’s like to compete in the Playoffs. However, he will have a championship winning crew chief and a team to help him learn and to lean on which will give him a fighting chance to make it to the championship finale in November. So far, Hill has been able to prove that he is worthy of a championship but will need some work to do in hopes of winning the championship.
Notable – Hill finished 11th in the 2018 Truck Series standings. He failed to make the Playoffs in 2016 and 2017 after competing on a part-time schedule.
- Ross Chastain – What a season it has been for the Florida native Ross Chastain who switched his points in the middle of the season and it has worked out well so far for the Niece Motorsports driver who has three wins in what is quite possibly his best season yet.
How he got here – Chastain won at Kansas, Gateway and Pocono in order to give him his first chance at a Truck Series title. The Florida native has six top-fives and 13 top-10 finishes along with 305 laps led which gives him an average finishing position of 9.2. With the strong season, Chastain has 12 playoff points to work with in the Playoffs.
Chances – 75%. I think Chastain has a good shot at winning the title. He has been consistent all season long with only two DNFs. Other than Eldora, he has been able to finish in the top-10 in every race. Chastain has three stage wins and is making his first ever Truck Series Playoffs. He does have experience competing at the upcoming tracks. Chastain even competed in the 2018 Xfinity Series Playoffs and won at Las Vegas, which is a playoff race in the Truck Series. He and Austin Hill are tied, having the same amount of playoff points.
Concerns – This is the first time that Niece Motorsports is competing in the Playoffs. I’m concerned with the small notebook they have to lean on in order to help them with what they need in order to survive and advance. So far Niece Motorsports has been able to prove people wrong every week by running up front and winning races. If they can keep that up I see no problems with them advancing through the Playoffs, especially when points get tight later in the rounds.
Notable – Chastain has finishes of 10th at Las Vegas earlier this season and fourth at Martinsville in the Spring, both tracks that are in the Playoffs.
- Matt Crafton – Seeded sixth in the playoffs, Matt Crafton comes in with 12 playoff points and is making his fourth consecutive playoff appearance. It has been an up and down season for the two-time Truck Series champion who had critical comments about the playoff system after Saturday’s race in Michigan.
How he got here – He was able to advance into the Playoffs based on points and had help with no new drivers winning at Michigan. Crafton remained second in regular season points throughout the season and had a chance to challenge his ThorSport teammate Enfinger for the regular season title, but fell short. The California native has posted six top fives and 14 top-10 finishes and earned two poles at Kansas and Charlotte. He was able to win three stages and led 34 laps that equaled to a 7.2 average finish.
Chances – 65%. Crafton has been strong for the most part and had a runner up finish at Texas to Greg Biffle. The team does have speed but they need some wins to their credit if they want to be at Homestead in November fighting for the championship. Crafton is hungry for a win and has been winless for two years now.
Concern – I would like to see more wins from the No. 88 driver before considering him a championship threat. However, if the championship was still decided by a full season, Crafton would have that chance as he sits second in regular season standings.
Notable – In the 2018 run for the championship, Crafton only earned two top fives and four top-10 finishes before being eliminated in the Round of 6. With those finishes, the California native earned an average finish of 10.7 in the 2018 playoffs. Crafton did compete in the Championship 4 in 2016, before finishing second to Sauter.
- Johnny Sauter – Sauter comes into the Playoffs as the seventh seed with nine playoff points. It has been a struggle for the Wisconsin native who quite possibly is having his worst season. This is the fewest top five and top-10 finishes he has had to date especially for someone who is otherwise a contender week-in and week-out.
How he got here – Winning at Dover gave Sauter the chance to compete for the Playoffs once again. He has made every one since it started in 2016 and was the first ever playoff champion. On the other hand, however, Sauter has only managed three top fives and seven top-10 finishes, the lowest he has ever had in his career. This is possibly his worst season since 2012 when Sauter earned six top fives and nine top-10 finishes that year. The ThorSport Racing driver has only been able to lead 76 laps and won three stages with an average finish of 7.2 so far this season.
Chances – 55%. It seems that since winning Dover Sauter has fallen off and hasn’t been able to regain what he had at the beginning of the season. Outside of getting an eighth place finish at Pocono, Sauter has finished outside the top-10 seven times.
Concerns – Speed. I think one of the issues Sauter and his No. 13 team face is the lack of speed which the team will need in order to advance throughout the Playoffs. Until Sauter finds what he had at the beginning of the season, I can’t really take Sauter as a serious threat for the championship.
Notable – In 2018 Sauter had two top fives and four top-10 finishes with a win at Martinsville giving him a chance at the Championship 4 once more. He led 187 laps and had an average finishing position of 8.7. During his 2016 championship playoff run Sauter had two wins at Martinsville and Texas, four top fives and seven top-10 finishes before winning the title.
- Tyler Ankrum – Ankrum is perhaps the most surprising driver in the Playoffs, driving for DGR-Crosley, he is seeded eighth.
How he got here – The win at Kentucky gave Ankrum the chance to compete for the championship in what will be his first playoff appearance. He had another chance to win at Michigan before being taken out with four laps to go. Otherwise, Ankrum has only competed in 13 races due to age restrictions. He’s earned three top fives and six top-10 finishes with 52 laps led and an average finish of 14.3.
Chances – 40%. Ankrum has never competed in the Playoffs and neither has the team. However, he has been working with an experienced crew chief, Kevin Manion, who used to work at Kyle Busch Motorsports and won championships with Martin Truex Jr. in 2004 and 2005.
Concerns – As mentioned, the California native doesn’t quite have the experience in order to get a feeling for what competing for the championship is like in the Truck Series. It’s a completely different feel than the K&N Pro Series or CARS Late Model Series in which he has competed. For most of these tracks coming up, Ankrum will be competing at them for the first time other than Martinsville and Phoenix. Since winning at Kentucky, however, Ankrum has finished second and ninth, respectively with the exception of crashing out last week at Michigan. The DGR-Crosley driver will also have to work on his DNFs after having four of them this season.
The Round of 8 begins this Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. The round will feature a variety of tracks by going to a half mile on Thursday, a road course in Canada that has featured exciting last lap finishes before heading to Las Vegas to end the Round of 8.
The Round of 6 will feature the tracks like Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway and the penultimate race at ISM Raceway.
The championship crowning race will be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway that will see four drivers competing for the chapmionship.