Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: Playoff Drivers, Tanner Gray’s Debut Among Martinsville Storylines

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Setting the Championship 4

Following a wild finish at Talladega Superspeedway that saw Johnny Sauter penalized, Spencer Boyd was the one who emerged victorious. That means no playoff driver locked their way into the Championship 4 the last time the Gander Outdoors Truck Series raced.

Defending champion Brett Moffitt holds the advantage with a 45-point margin over Tyler Ankrum, who’s currently seeded fifth and below the cutline. Beyond there, the remaining five drivers are separated by a mere 24 points. Stewart Friesen is second, followed by Austin Hill and Matt Crafton, who narrowly holds a single point over Ankrum. Ross Chastain, despite a crash at Talladega, is just two points below the cutline, thanks in large part to a healthy cushion built through stage and race wins through the regular season.

We all know the kind of craziness that can happen at Martinsville Speedway, and the tight confines of the track certainly invite contact. A small mistake could lead to a major disaster for any of these playoff teams. After all, a combination of stage points and a runner-up finish for Chase Elliott at Kansas Speedway last weekend, combined with Brad Keselowski‘s dismal day, saw a 24-point spread disappear in a single Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Regardless of whether you think a champion crowned through the playoff system is a worthy one, it’s hard to deny the intensity and the mystery surrounding who may come out on top when it’s all said and done.

Tanner Gray’s Debut

NHRA Pro-Stock champion Tanner Gray will make his Truck Series debut this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Piloting the No. 15 Toyota for DGR-Crosley, the 20-year-old looks to utilize the experience he gained this season running as a rookie in the K&N Pro Series East.

Obviously excited to make his debut, Gray knows the transition won’t be easy.

“I think it’s going to be challenging, but I’m ready to take the next step with my DGR-Crosley guys,” Gray said in a team release. “We’ve been preparing for this all season, and I think the best way to learn is to go out and do it. Between testing and spending time in the Toyota simulator, I think I have a good feel for Martinsville and will be able to adapt quickly.

“We will have three practice sessions to get acclimated and get the truck where it needs to be. We just need to keep our nose clean in the race and have a solid day on pit road.”

Gray will have Seth Smith atop the pit box and veteran spotter Eddie D’Hondt calling the shots in Saturday’s race.

Jeb Burton’s Return to the Truck Series

For the second time this year, Jeb Burton, who hasn’t raced full-time in NASCAR since the 2014 Truck Series season, will pilot the No. 44 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports. Burton made his season debut at Kentucky Speedway, where he started 28th and finished a respectable ninth.

“Martinsville is certainly a very special track to me and a place that I have a lot of experience, so I’m confident that we can turn that into a strong result,” Burton said.

Burton definitely has plenty of experience racing at the short track, with four Cup Series and seven Truck Series starts under his belt. During his 2013 campaign, he posted a pair of third-place results.

Perhaps what’s more important about this weekend for Burton is that it could be an audition to join the team full-time for the 2020 season. The No. 45 Chevrolet should become available next season with Chastain moving to compete full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing. And while there aren’t any reliable rumors about this move just yet, it’s not that far off to expect a driver who already has ties with the organization to slide right into that vacant seat next season.

Truckin’ Tidbits:

  • As of press time, there are 32 trucks on the Martinsville entry list, meaning all who attempt to qualify will run the race. Drivers will run a pair of practice sessions on Friday, Oct. 25, before qualifying Saturday morning, Oct. 26, and racing at 1:30 p.m. ET that afternoon.
  • It appears Chad Finley Racing may be getting out of the Truck Series side of the racing business. The team put this post up on Facebook, though it’s not clear whether that’s all of the truck equipment it has. Requests for comment from the team were not answered as of press time.
  • An interesting statistic has followed the Truck Series at Martinsville through the last five odd-numbered years. In each of those seasons, beginning in 2009, a first-time winner has emerged from the chaos. Timothy Peters, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, Joey Logano and Noah Gragson share that honor.
  • With Harrison Burton moving to compete full-time in the Xfinity Series next season with Joe Gibbs Racing, the No. 18 Toyota he’s run this year will be up for grabs. Currently, Motorsport.com is reporting ARCA Menards Series champion Christian Eckes will run that truck full-time next season. He has 10 starts for Kyle Busch Motorsports over the last two years, with two poles, two top fives and six top 10s to his name.
  • Carson Hocevar, who made his Truck Series debut at Eldora Speedway earlier this season for Jordan Anderson Racing, is set to make his second start at ISM Raceway at Phoenix in a couple of weeks. He’ll drive the No. 56 Chevrolet in a collaboration with Hill Motorsports, and Darren Fraley will serve as crew chief.

“This sport is so crazy at times, and the fact that I’m able to get back to the track before the season is over is a dream come true and something I’ve worked so hard for,” Hocevar said in a team release. “As Jordan and his team continue building better Silverados, I’m thankful for the opportunity they’ve given me to be apart of it, as well as our incredible partners who make this all possible. I really feel the experience I’ve gained this year racing in ARCA at some of the short tracks we’ve competed on will translate really well when the green flag drops.”

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