Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: 8 Drivers, 3 Rounds, 1 Championship

Last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, the Camping World Truck Series set its playoff field, and for the final seven races on the schedule, all eyes will focus on the championship battle. One thing that’s different this year, though, is the number of playoff points accumulated each week by winning stages and races. Those bonus points will follow drivers all the way through to Homestead before all four championship contenders will take the green flag dead even.

Beginning Saturday afternoon, eight drivers will battle for three races to fill six spots to move on to the next round. Then, those six will dwindle to four competitors who will run for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.

Christopher Bell, who secured the regular season championship and an additional 15 playoff points enters as the early leader with a clear advantage to make the final four drivers at Homestead. Before the series even runs its first playoff race, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota already holds a 15-point advantage over Chicagoland winner Johnny Sauter.

Bell has had somewhat of a dream season after last year’s dominant Kyle Busch Motorsports driver, William Byron, moved on to the XFINITY Series. He leads the Truck Series in pretty much every category. With four wins, 10 top fives, 14 top 10s and 593 laps led, it’s clear Bell belongs in the championship conversation. After all, Byron would have won the title if not for the blown engine at Phoenix that ended his hopes.

With that said, Sauter rolls into this weekend with momentum on his side after scoring a convincing victory last weekend. The defending series champion has quietly compiled a relatively solid season thus far with two wins, nine top fives and 13 top 10s.

By comparison to his 2016 championship campaign, at this point last year, the driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet had just a single victory, eight top-five results and 12 top 10s. In the final seven races last year, Sauter went on a streak, finishing no worse than 10th and posting back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas. And when championship favorite Byron was knocked out of the battle following a blown motor at Phoenix, Sauter pounced and took advantage, using a third-place finish at Homestead to secure his first career championship.

The only other driver with multiple wins this season is the single-truck effort of John Hunter Nemechek. With back-to-back victories at Gateway Motorsports Park and Iowa Speedway, the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet sits 11 markers behind Sauter with 14 playoff points.

It’s been a bit of a challenging season for Nemechek, who struggled in the first seven races. He had just two top fives – fourth at Daytona and third at Kansas – but finished outside the top 20 in the other five events. Needless to say, the trip to Victory Lane at Gateway in the eight race of the season was an emotional one for the lone NEMCO Motorsports driver.

Since breaking through to Victory Lane, Nemechek has finished outside the top 10 just three times – Kentucky, Michigan and Mosport – and has suffered just a single DNF. Despite being eighth in points when the checkered flag flew on the regular season, Nemechek finds himself slotted third, thanks in large part to 10 playoff points for the two wins.

Tied with Nemechek is a driver who’s no stranger to hoisting the championship trophy. Two-time champion Matt Crafton has finished no worse than third in the standings since the 2012 season when he ended up sixth. With just single victory and only four top fives, it’s been a bit of a down season for the driver of the No. 88 Toyota. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would have guessed when the year began that his lone win would have come at Eldora, especially since his previous best finish there was 10th.

Though he’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last seven races, momentum isn’t really on Crafton’s side headed into the playoffs. He suffered a blown motor a few weeks ago in the series’ only road course race, and then struggled at Chicagoland before a spin and the resulting problems saw him drop two laps down to a 16th-place finish.

That’s not exactly the result you want headed into the championship battle, though the veteran crew chief and driver duo have a knack for making strides when it matters most.

In what is perhaps the feel-good sad story (what a contradiction, right?) of the season, Brad Keselowski Racing put both of its drivers in the playoff field in its final season. Just a few weeks after announcing it would not return for 2018, Austin Cindric scored his first career win in a controversial finish at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, while teammate Chase Briscoe locked himself in the field on points, via a seventh-place finish.

Briscoe and Cindric enter with nine and seven playoff points, respectively, meaning the pair will need solid performance throughout the championship battle to make up some of their deficit.

But it’s not like the duo haven’t shown promise in their rookie seasons. Briscoe made his series debut at Daytona to open the year and did it in exciting fashion, scoring a third-place finish. He nearly won at Texas in what turned out to be a photo finish – in a race that’s better remembered for Timothy Peters’ wild ride down the frontstretch – where Bell barely edged him, and he’s also got two poles, six top fives and 10 top 10s in 16 races so far.

Perhaps what’s more important for Briscoe is that he’s finished outside the top 10 just twice in the nine-races since that first runner-up result, a feat he matched in the following race at Gateway as well as the regular season finale at Chicagoland last weekend.

Meanwhile, Cindric had six starts under his belt already coming into the 2017 campaign, highlighted by a best finish of 14th at Phoenix in 2015. However, his rookie season got off to a much slower start than his teammates as he finished inside the top 10 just twice in the first eight events. In fact, without a playoff berth based on his win at CTMP, he would be 10th in points right now.

Despite the slow start, Cindric has finished outside the top 10 just once in the last eight races, and that was last weekend at Chicagoland. The 15th-place result marked his worst finish since crashing out at Texas Motor Speedway in June after just 28 laps. Last Friday night, Cindric struggled with a tight truck and compounded the matter when he slid through his pit box, but the good news is that he made that mistake before it really hurt him in the championship battle.

Ben Rhodes may have been the last driver to secure his position in this year’s championship battle, and the sophomore driver enters with just seven playoff points to his favor. But one thing he’s done this year is that he’s already surpassed his rookie season in top fives, top 10s, laps led, average start and average finish. Add to that a dominant near-win at Kansas Speedway earlier this year that was derailed by an engine failure with just a handful of laps remaining, and the No. 27 team has got its eyes on the big prize at the end of the year.

In fact, Chicagoland was actually a perfect example of what the team can do when it faces adversity. Though the record books will show a sixth-place finish, it was far from an easy race. It started with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire, then a tire rub after contact from teammate Crafton, who struggled with a loose truck as the laps wound down. And if that wasn’t enough, an extra pit stop to work on damage from that contact buried Rhodes in the field. Despite the setbacks, crew chief Eddie Troconis kept his crew and driver focused well enough to bring home the sixth that allowed them to make the playoffs.

The eighth and final seed in this year’s championship battle comes in Kaz Grala, who as a virtual unknown, escaped the carnage at Daytona to open the season and locked himself in early and has done very little since then. He finished 15th or worse in three of the four races following the Daytona win and has suffered six DNFs this season, one of which was for engine troubles at Bristol.

Coming into the playoffs, though, Grala carries a little bit of momentum in the form of back-to-back top-10 finishes. CTMP two races ago marked the first time since Daytona that Grala found himself in front of the field, and though he led 19 laps, he was the victim of a dump-and-run by Cindric, who made the move knowing his fellow rookie was locked into the playoffs. Despite the spin, Grala recovered to finish third and followed that up with a ninth last week at Chicagoland.

While it’s likely Grala will be one of the first two to drop out of the playoff field in a few weeks, it’s a valuable experience for the 18-year-old who made just nine starts last season, mostly because he was too young to run on most of the tracks the series visits.

Following this weekend’s race at New Hampshire, the series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The biggest wild card coming up is actually the cutoff race in the form of Talladega Superspeedway in a few weeks. It’s likely many will tiptoe around the championship drivers in order to avoid causing an accident that ends their race, however carnage is almost inevitable at a plate track. Anyone remember Daytona? I’ll bet Grala does.

I’d love to say I know who’s going to emerge victorious in the championship battle, but I’m not even sure I’m positive about who will be racing in the final four at Homestead, especially since I expected Byron to be in that conversation last season. But the difference this year is going to come down to playoff points.

Based on those and past performance, let’s put Bell, Crafton, Sauter and Rhodes in the final four. It’s pretty easy to see why the first three are in there: dominance and veteran experience. However, Rhodes is the one that’s probably raising some eyebrows.

The 20-year-old has already bested his rookie season in pretty much every category, not to mention he didn’t even make the championship battle last season. Add in how close he’s come to winning this year and the valuable information he’s been able to learn from racing hard with Kyle Busch several times, and now that the pressure to make the playoffs is off of his shoulders, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him grab a win in these final seven races.

While another first-time champion would be great to see, it’s hard for me to bet against Sauter putting together another seven-race stretch for others to beat. And though most of the focus hasn’t been on the GMS Racing driver, it’s hard to bet against the organization that took the driver of the No. 21 all the way to a championship in his first season there (even if he had some help).

Either way, buckle up; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Truckin’ Tidbits

  • As of press time, just 30 trucks are entered for Saturday afternoon’s race, though late entries are not out of the ordinary for this series. Drivers will run a pair of practice sessions on Friday before qualifying Saturday morning.
  • Cole Custer stands as the lone driver to score his first career win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He accomplished the feat during the 2014 season.
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