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After back-to-back races to open the Camping World Truck Series Round of 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the series continues to sit idle while the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series work their way through their respective playoffs to get to Martinsville Speedway in a few weeks.
Christian Eckes and Tate Fogleman took the wins at Las Vegas and Talladega, respectively, preventing all eight of the current playoff drivers from securing their spot in the Championship 4 ahead of the short track showdown ahead of the series finale at Phoenix Raceway. And with one race remaining to set the battle for this year’s championship, everything will be on the line at Martinsville later this month.
Currently, John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Sheldon Creed sit above the cut line for the Championship 4, though none of them are safe from elimination. With a 64-point advantage over Stewart Friesen, Nemechek is in the most comfortable position, needing to score just 25 points at Martinsville with a victory from one of the drivers sitting fifth through eighth in the standings. Rhodes is in a similar position and needed just 26 points if Friesen, Chandler Smith, Carson Hocevar or Zane Smith were to win at Martinsville.
That’s where things get a little dicey, though. Crafton needs to score 51 points at Martinsville to lock himself into the title battle, meaning those stage points are going to prove valuable throughout the race. And though he’s above the cut line at this point, Creed is just five markers ahead of Friesen in sixth and needs some help to point his way into the title battle after a crash at Las Vegas that took him out of the race just past the halfway point.
At this point, Friesen, Chandler Smith, Hocevar and Zane Smith are far enough below the cut line that they would need help in the form of problems for other playoff contenders to point their way into the Championship 4, though, obviously a win would put them in position to race for the title.
Of course all of the above assumes a playoff driver wins at Martinsville, but we all know the uncertainty that short track beating and banging can bring. And there’s a very real possibility that the Round of 8 will end with all three races won by those not in the playoffs. And Martinsville has been host to 11 first-time winners since 2000.
With all of that said, Johnny Sauter comes to mind as a driver who can easily play spoiler to the playoff drivers at Martinsville. Before you walk away thinking I’m crazy, hear me out. We all know Sauter can he a hot head when things aren’t going right for him, but in case you haven’t noticed, the No. 13 team has been heating up during the playoffs, albeit too little, too late for the championship battle.
In the first 15 races of the regular season, Sauter finished inside the top 10 just four times and outside the top 15 in eight of those races. Since the playoffs started though? He’s got four top-10 finishes in five races with the only outlier being Talladega, which, frankly, can collect any driver no matter their skill or what kind of season they’re having. And while Martinsville wasn’t too kind to Sauter last season (23rd), Sauter has six top 10s in his last eight starts at the paperclip, including wins in 2016 and 2018.
The most recent first-time winner at Martinsville was Todd Gilliland in 2019 as his tenure with Kyle Busch Motorsports crept toward a close. It was the culmination of two years of strong runs for the then-sophomore driver who’d not managed to find victory lane despite showing the potential to do so. Fast forward to this season and he’s in his second year running for Front Row Motorsports. After making the playoffs, he was eliminated by a narrow margin at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But despite being out of the playoffs, Gilliland is currently running the best season of his Truck Series career, having already scored one win, 10 top fives and 15 top 10s. His record at Bristol is decent too. Including the win, he’s finished inside the top 15 in five of six starts with his worst finish coming last Fall when he posted a 32nd-place finish, officially retiring due to overheating.
Just a couple weeks removed from the announcement that he would not be returning to Hattori Racing Enterprises to run in the Truck Series next season, Austin Hill is planning to run in the Xfinity Series for 2022. And with just two races remaining on the schedule, it’s the perfect time for him to show potential teams what he’s capable of, assuming he doesn’t already have a plan in place that he’s not yet ready to announce.
Martinsville hasn’t been kind to Hill in recent seasons with finishes of 26th and 35th in 2019 and 2020, respectively. But with nothing to lose championship-wise, it’s a lot easier for the No. 16 team to take chances and leave stage points on the table in favor of the shot at a trip to victory lane.
Of course, any conversation about potential playoff spoilers at Martinsville can’t be complete without the most recent winner at the short track, Grant Enfinger. Sharing the No. 98 Toyota with Eckes this season wasn’t his ideal schedule, though he’s managed to piece together almost an entire schedule by utilizing time behind the wheel of the No. 9 Rohrbaugh Racing Chevrolet. And despite that equipment typically being back of the pack, he’s posted some solid results in that truck too.
The bottom line is that nothing is guaranteed for the playoff drivers heading into Martinsville in a few weeks. Every stage point will be critical as they race 200 laps to set up this year’s Championship 4, and given that it’s a short track, there should be no shortage of beating and banging and probably some tempers flaring along the way.
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