Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: Tight Points Battle Leaves Playoff Field Wide Open

As the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series draws closer to its 2023 rendition of the playoffs, the playoff picture will be a topic of conversation in the remaining four races of the regular season.

Since the Truck Series adapted the playoff system, it’s been pretty easy to pick out the championship favorites, and more often than not, at least 50% of the playoff field has been decided well before the playoffs even begin.

In 2023, that is far from the case. Not only is there still a possibility to get 10 different winners to make the playoffs, but the regular season championship is far from settled. Also, the battle for the final playoff spots, should points become a factor, involves eight different drivers vying for four remaining spots.

Let’s take a look at each situation.

No. 1: The 10-Winner Possibility

With four races left until the playoffs, the possibility of 10 different winners making the playoffs is still high. However, there are six winners already, so with four races left, not only are those six drivers locked in, but just one repeat or non-regular winner makes this scenario obsolete.

There are some drivers who have shown flashes of brilliance that could potentially snag a win, and other drivers have surprisingly not won yet. Three-time champion Matt Crafton has only won once in the last six years, at Kansas Speedway in 2020. He’s one who is hungry for a win.

Stewart Friesen has shown race-winning speed for the first time in a long time. The Canadian hasn’t won since Texas Motor Speedway in 2022, and before that it was 2019, where he won twice. He’s fresh off of a third-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway where he also picked up the stage two win, his first stage win of the season.

Other wild cards could include Matt DiBenedetto, who is currently in the midst of three straight top-10 finishes, as well as rookies Nick Sanchez and Jake Garcia, who have both shown excellent speed this season and, in the case of Sanchez, has been on the cusp of victory several times this season.

Crafton’s teammate, Ty Majeski, has been in contention for the win several times this season, but hasn’t been able to put together a full race. The biggest example was the latest race at Gateway, where he would’ve likely won the race but drove into turn 3 too hard in the closing laps, wiping himself and race leader Zane Smith out. Despite running second in points, Majeski cannot seem to crack victory lane just yet, but it seems he will at some point.

No. 2: Who Will Be Regular Season Champion?

When points leader Corey Heim fell under the weather and missed Gateway, he had such a big cushion that he kept the points lead. His two biggest rivals for the points, Smith and Majeski, also crashed at Gateway and helped soften the blow. Heim now leads by just one point over Majeski.

But by missing that race, as well as Smith and Majeski’s struggles, the door has opened for several other drivers to steal the point lead. The top six are separated by just 36 points. That’s equivalent to a full race BEFORE factoring stage points in.

Among that six is Christian Eckes, who has already won twice this season, but has had a wildly inconsistent season; in the five races between his two wins, he alternated finishes of 30th and 15th. Eckes sits in sixth but can change that with another win.

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Meanwhile, the other two drivers in the battle for the regular season championship, Ben Rhodes and Grant Enfinger, have only recently come to life.

Enfinger had just three top 10s in the first seven races before collecting his first win at Kansas. Just four races later, he won Gateway, securing his first multi-win season since 2020 and taking third place from Smith, knocking the latter out of the top three in points for the first time this season.

Rhodes, on the other hand, had quietly put together several top-10 finishes before obtaining his first DNF of the season at North Wilkesboro Speedway. But he followed that up with a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and then finished seventh at Gateway. The 2021 champion is looking to build on that momentum while others falter.

With Smith finishing 20th or worse in the last four races, and Majeski notching three DNFs in his last five races, Heim could return and easily run away with the regular season championship. However, if he struggles, too, the regular season championship is wide open. But with Heim’s last finish outside the top 10 coming on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, he might be in a good place down the stretch to earn those 15 bonus playoff points.

No. 3: It’s Anyone’s Race At the Back of the Top-10

While the top six are separated by just 36 points, there is a 52-point gap between sixth-place Eckes and seventh-place Carson Hocevar. But then there’s a separate playoff battle in points in the back half of the top 10.

The gap between Hocevar and Sanchez, who is currently 12th in points, is just 30 points. You could throw in 13th-place Chase Purdy and the gap increases to 57 points separating seven positions, just shy of a full race with stage points factored in.

Hocevar won earlier this season at Texas, so let’s remove him from the equation, as he’s locked into the playoffs. The gap between eight-place Crafton and Purdy is now just 52 points.

With just 10 spots available, three of these drivers will miss the playoffs. Obviously, a win will relieve the pressure off of any of these drivers, but these drivers should focus on points racing if they can’t find victory lane, in the event points do become a factor.

Crafton has a 26-point cushion on Tanner Gray, who is the first driver below the cutoff. The actual cut line is just seven points between Gray and DiBenedetto, who is currently the last driver in. But one DNF from Crafton and a great finish from Gray could quickly flip the playoffs and put Crafton on the outside looking in.

Purdy could be the sleeper in this situation. In his Truck Series career, Purdy has never been seen as a race-winning contender, despite being on his third race-winning team in the Truck Series. He joined Kyle Busch Motorsports after spending a year at Hattori Racing Enterprises and another at GMS Racing.

Each team has found major success in the Truck Series but Purdy can’t seem to take advantage of that. However, what Purdy has this year that he hasn’t seemed to have in the past is some semblance of consistency, with two top fives and four top 10s.

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He’s been caught up in incidents not of his own doing and could be higher in points if those incidents didn’t happen. Since failing to finish two straight races at Kansas and Darlington Raceway, Purdy has two top fives, and the other race at Charlotte was a halfway decent 16th.

The only other driver who is mathematically within one race of stealing a playoff spot is Garcia, who is 14th in points, 58 points behind DiBenedetto. He would be closer if it weren’t for his age preventing him from competing in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Had he competed, he’d likely be 11th or 12th in points.

It’s worth bringing Majeski back into the conversation, as he is not locked in yet. However, he has a 92-point lead over Crafton and 118 over Gray, so barring a total collapse, he’s playoff racing (although the aforementioned last few weeks have not been good to him, so it isn’t out of the question).

While the Truck Series season has had a looming aura of disrespectful driving, the inconsistencies of drivers have created perhaps one of the most intense point battles in NASCAR history.

With eight drivers mathematically within one race eligible for four spots and four more races to duke it out, the intensity is only gonna get higher, and the aggressive nature of the Truck Series will skyrocket. And who knows who else could point their way into contention as well.

It’s going to be a fun four races.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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