Race Weekend Central

2021 Truck Series Awards: The Good, the Bad & the Dirty

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series saw many firsts throughout the last year, as well as intriguing, sometimes completely unexpected storylines, that it would be a disservice to try to wrap the year into one convenient package.

But what we can do is take a page out of NASCAR’s book while it’s giving away some awards in Nashville weekend.

Let’s give away some awards of our own for the 2021 Truck season, taking a look back at the good, the bad and even some of the dirtiest parts of the 2021 season.

Best Team

In 2020, Kyle Busch Motorsports had only one driver in the playoffs, and he went winless throughout the year.

In fact, out of all 23 races, KBM had only five wins throughout the year, and only one of those was with a full-time driver, with Raphael Lessard winning at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall.

It was an abysmal year for the formerly championship-caliber team, and with little success coming from his full-time drivers, team owner Kyle Busch let both Lessard and Christian Eckes go at the end of the year. In their stead, the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion brought in young gun Chandler Smith and Truck veteran John Hunter Nemechek to pilot the Nos. 4 and 18.

They did not disappoint.

In 2021, the team earned 10 wins,  including a five-win streak early in the season. It was far and away the most victories out of all teams this year. Only three of those wins came from non-full-time drivers in team owner Busch and his Cup teammate Martin Truex Jr., as Nemechek racked a whopping five wins throughout the year and Smith earned two.

But  despite its vast improvement from last year and its mostly dominant season, the team came up just short in its quest for its third championship.

With the way modern-day titles are decided in NASCAR, it’s not fair to question a team’s success if they didn’t win the championship. The facts are they still were the most dominant team this year in wins, and after a frustrating 2020 that ended with both KBM drivers losing their respective rides, 2021 proved to be a huge success.

With both drivers returning in 2022, next year is looking to be even better for the team.

See also
2021 ARCA Awards: Ty Gibbs Dominates, Car Counts Improve

Most Improved Driver

If there was a best driver award being given in this article, it would undoubtedly go to Nemechek. After all, there seemed to be a period of time where the No. 4 Toyota Tundra team was unbeatable, even beating out team owner and Truck legend Busch in some instances. That’s not something to be taken lightly.

However, this award isn’t for the best driver.

Instead, this award is for the driver that improved the most throughout the year, and it should go to Nemechek’s teammate, Smith.

For a time, it appeared as though the No. 18 Toyota team was the redheaded stepchild of the KBM crew. At the beginning of 2021, both of the other trucks weren’t simply winning — they were dominating. By the time the season had reached its halfway point, Nemechek and the part-time drivers of the No. 51 team had four and three wins, respectively. That’s seven combined wins in 11 races. Smith, in his first full-time year in the series, had none at that point.

Then the playoffs arrived, and after a difficult first round, Smith found himself in a must-win situation at Bristol Motor Speedway. Winning your first race is no easy feat, but winning your first race and winning with playoff pressure on the line is even harder.

Yet, when push came to shove — and I do mean shove — Smith still won when he needed to by beating out his KBM teammate for a win.

In case anybody still had doubts for the 19-year-old after winning at Bristol, Smith won again at Phoenix Raceway in the season finale. Unfortunately, he had already been eliminated from the playoffs by then, but if he wasn’t, we’d see a different champion.

Best Moment

Let’s step away from the playoff drivers for a second.

A beauty about racing is that every once in a while, an underdog can rise to the occasion. We’ve seen it time and time again in NASCAR — a non-household name stunning everyone and winning a race by beating some of the best in the business. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a special moment.

At Talladega Superspeedway on the final lap, Tate Fogleman was that underdog.

As many events at Talladega go nowadays, the afternoon seemed to be more of a race of survival rather than distance. When the white flag flew, it was a familiar sight of Nemechek battling for the lead, with only Todd Gilliland in his way. Yet at Talladega, it’s never a race between only two people. There’s always a third-place driver lying in wait ready to pick up the pieces, and this time, that was the 21-year-old Fogleman.

Prior to that day, Fogleman had never earned a top five in any of his 45 series starts, so when he followed Nemechek slipping past Gilliland for the lead going into the tri-oval he could have simply stayed in second and picked up a first top five with no feelings hurt in the process.

But this was Talladega. They don’t do that there.

A wreck between Nemechek, Fogleman and other frontrunners destroyed Fogleman’s Chevy Silverado, and the young driver had to visit the infield care center before attending victory lane celebrations for the race he had won.

Despite the carnage and the visit to the doctor’s office, Fogleman was able to join his team and totaled truck in victory lane minutes later.

For the third consecutive year, Talladega delivered another feel-good story with a first-time winner in the Truck Series.

See also
Tyler Ankrum Joins Hattori

Biggest Disappointment

There was a time when Tyler Ankrum appeared to be the promising up-and-comer that many assumed would one day compete for Truck championships.

Not so much this year.

The GMS Racing driver earned a best finish of third twice in 2021, at Circuit of the Americas and Richmond Raceway. They were two of just three top fives he earned throughout 2021.

The 20-year-old driver of the No. 26 Chevrolet earned only five top 10s to boot. That’s three less top 10s than he earned in 2019, a year where he missed the first three events. In addition, 2021 saw the youngster end the season with a 19.8 average finish, which is the worst of his Truck career.

It was also the first year where Ankrum did not qualify for the series playoffs while in a full-time entry, while GMS teammates Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith were concurrently competing for a championship near the end of the season.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Ankrum. On Dec. 1, Hattori Racing Enterprises announced the Californian will drive the No. 16 Toyota full time in 2022, replacing the outgoing Austin Hill, who will race for Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity Series entry. Perhaps the two-truck team (it’s adding Chase Purdy and the No. 61 to the lineup) will do the young driver some good as he looks to return to the winning form he had in 2019.

Most Disappointing Moment

Out of the 22 races this season, three of them were inaugural events. Whether you like it or not, you simply can’t talk about the 2021 season without mentioning the one at Knoxville Raceway.

At the beginning of the year, the 2021 NASCAR season seemed like a dream to the dirt racing fan. Not only was the Cup Series going to make its long-awaited return to dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, but the Truck Series was also to race in not one, but two dirt race visits this year. The series left Eldora Speedway to join Cup at the Bristol and made a stop at the legendary Knoxville.

However, what awaited the series regulars at the historic Iowa track was a caution-filled demolition derby that made the most hardcore fan blush. A whopping 45% of the 179-lap race was ran under caution, featuring 14 yellow flags throughout the main event, which included four overtime attempts in total. The longest green flag run of the night was 24 laps.

Many made a collective sigh of relief when eventual race winner Hill finally took the white flag. That didn’t mean the wrecking was over, though.

Best Soundbite

Let’s leave this on a good note.

When 2021 champion Ben Rhodes crossed the line at Phoenix and earned his first series title, ThorSport Racing celebrated as almost all race teams do — drinking copious amounts of champagne.

Then the victorious Rhodes had a beer. Then he had another, and another.

In the midst of all the celebration, Rhodes still had to visit the media center for his post-race press conference.

What followed was perhaps not only the best post-race press conference of the season, but maybe the best press conference ever.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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