Race Weekend Central

Tearing Apart the Trucks: 4 Drivers to Watch in Kansas

This weekend, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finally gets back on track for what will remain a more consistent schedule. Granted, there are still off-weekends in the future, however no more than one will fall back-to-back, unless you count weekends for when Eldora Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, both Wednesday night features, come around on the schedule.

Built in 2001, Kansas Speedway has hosted the Truck Series for the last 16 years and has seen just a single repeat winner. Matt Crafton, who won in 2013 and 2015, looks to make it three wins in the last five years when the field takes the green flag Friday night. The driver of the No. 88 Toyota holds nearly every record at the mile-and-a-half oval, including most starts (16), top fives (5), top 10s (8), lead-lap finishes (10) and laps run (2,576).

With back-to-back top 10s at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, after taking flight in the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, Crafton has already started the weekend off well, finishing fifth and second in Thursday’s pair of practice sessions, held under heavy overcast skies.

But as the series shakes off the rust that’s formed over the last six weeks, the youth movement in the series has already set out to give the veterans a run for their money. Last season, a surprise win by William Byron marked the beginning of what turned out to be a historic run to an almost-championship for the No. 9 team. The win was his first of seven in a year where a late-season blown engine dashed his hopes of winning the championship.

Now, former teammate Christopher Bell looks to capitalize on the success Kyle Busch Motorsports has found with its mile-and-a-half program. A win under his belt means the driver of the No. 4 Toyota can relax a little, even if he still wants to notch a couple more wins.

Aging track surface you say? (Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

“I feel like having the win under our belt maybe allows my crew chief to be a little bit more aggressive on pit strategy, such as getting track position instead of tires or vice versa,” Bell explained Thursday afternoon. “As far as me driving – not really because we’re out there to give 100 percent all the time. I’m thankful we’ve got the win. It definitely takes some stress off, but we’re out here and we want to win more too.”

Of course, he’ll have teammate and truck owner Kyle Busch to contend with also. Making his second start of the 2017 season, the driver of the No. 51 Toyota ran inside the top 10 during the first practice but dropped back to 12th during the second. Busch has a win and two top 10s in three starts at Kansas Speedway.

Meanwhile, defending champion Johnny Sauter would love nothing more than to notch his first win of the season this weekend. He’s run well in the past at Kansas, scoring a win in 2010 and five top 10s in eight starts. Last season, the pressure was already off of the driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet by this point in the year, following a win at Daytona. He finished 16th last season in this race after last-lap contact with Ben Rhodes.

But perhaps what’s more interesting about Friday night’s race than those who have a shot at the win is that the surface has aged to a point where it creates drama, especially on restarts. Last season, those restarts results in 19 lead changes, the most ever in the history of Truck Series racing at the track.

“Kansas is always super exciting because it’s so wide on the front straightway,” Bell said. “Restarts are always super hectic and the way the trucks draft, you can’t really get away from somebody. So, that’s typically why you see three- and four-wide on the restarts here. So that’s something I think all of us drivers are a little bit apprehensive about is because you just never really know what to expect and there’s no way to plan for how the restarts go.”

And if that’s not enough, you’ve got 10 drivers starting this race that had zero Truck Series experience at the track. Throw in stage racing, and you’ve got the recipe for one of two things: a race of epic proportions or a crash-fest that could rival Daytona.

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