BRISTOL, Ten. — The 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series playoff grid is one of the most unusual in the history of the sport.
Introduced to the Truck Series in 2016, the elimination-style, seven race playoff to crown the champion has seen, more than not, the most competitive drivers and teams qualify for the eight man show.
Not to say that these aren’t the eight most competitive drivers and teams this season, but there were quite a number of players left on the outside looking in, replaced by those who had crazy paths to this iteration of the “Round of 8”.
Grant Enfinger qualified for the field by winning the 2019 regular season championship. However, despite collecting the most points and winning four stages, Enfinger did not collect a checkered flag in the first 16 races.
Enfinger beat Brett Moffitt by 51 points at the end of the regular season to claim the 15 playoff point bonus, but Moffitt still enters as the top seed, having won two races and two stages.
Stewart Friesen took the trophy at the Eldora Dirt Derby last month to qualify for the playoffs, and is seeded in third place.
Austin Hill won the first and the last race of the regular season, and is seeded in fourth.
It wasn’t too much out of the ordinary in the top half of the playoff grid, besides the regular season champion entering the playoffs without a win.
However, in the bottom half of the grid, it gets pretty twisted.
ROSS CHASTAIN – Seed #5
Ross Chastain had, quite possibly, the most unconventional path to the playoffs.
Chastain started the year declared for points in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Despite originally declaring to run for an Xfinity Series championship, Chastain kept busy, racing the first 36 races in all three NASCAR National Series consecutively before giving up his seat in the No. 4 NXS ride at Iowa Speedway.
In May, Chastain found victory lane in the NGOTS race at Kansas Speedway for the first time in his career, driving the No. 45 Silverado for Al Niece and Niece Motorsports.
The win, of course, was only a trophy, and did not count for points or qualification for the playoffs.
A month later, before the Triple Truck Challenge began at Texas Motor Speedway, Chastain announced that he was switching his series to Trucks from Xfinity.
Chastain’s Xfinity points were erased, and his declaration was switched to start earning points in the Trucks, starting at Texas. The win at Kansas would still not count towards a playoff berth. Also, Chastain would only have half of the season to win another race, and earn enough points to make the Top 20 before the end of the regular season.
Chastain got his win at Iowa only two weeks into his declared “Melon Man Challenge”, but unfortunately, the win was taken away shortly after, as his No. 44 truck failed post race inspection. Chastain was only given last place points, and lost both stage victories as well.
A week later, Chastain was victorious again, this time at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Now, Chastain just needed to make up enough points to make the Top 20.
Another victory at Pocono Raceway sealed the deal, and Chastain finished the regular season in 14th place, collecting 12 playoff points in the process.
MATT CRAFTON – Seed #6
Matt Crafton almost didn’t get the chance to race for a championship this year, despite finishing in third place in the regular season standings.
Crafton was winless through the first 16 races, just like his teammate Enfinger. If someone new would have won at Michigan, Crafton would have missed it.
A defending champion of the series in 2013 and 2014, Crafton hasn’t won since Eldora in 2017. Crafton was part of the Championship 4 in 2016 and 2017, but missed the cut last season in 2018.
If Crafton would have missed the cut, the possibility existed that he could end the full season with the most points earned outside of the playoffs, but finished ninth overall.
JOHNNY SAUTER – Seed #7
After losing his ride with GMS Racing during the offseason, Johnny Sauter got back together with his former team, ThorSport Racing, to drive the No. 13 Ford F-150 full time in 2019.
It’s been a very up-and-down season for the 2016 series champion, winning at Dover International Speedway early in the season to clinch a playoff spot, but then putting that eligibility at risk after getting suspended following an incident at Iowa Speedway.
It’s been a very un-Johnny Sauter like season despite the suspension, with only three Top 5’s, and seven Top 10’s in 16 races. Sauter also has four finishes outside the Top 20, and finished the regular season tenth in the standings.
Suspensions have previously taken drivers out of playoff contention, such as Spencer Gallagher in the Xfinity Series last season.
There have also been instances where a driver has been suspended and still remained playoff eligible, such as Kurt Busch in the Cup Series in 2015 when he sat out the first three races of the season.
In this instance, Sauter kept his eligibility, and will have the chance to win a second title this season if the cards play out in his favor.
TYLER ANKRUM – Seed #8
Only 17 years old at the beginning of the 2019 NGOTS campaign, Tyler Ankrum wasn’t eligible to compete in the first three races of the season, but applied for a waiver from NASCAR to still compete for the 2019 championship.
The waiver was granted, and a full-time ride was seemingly secured with DGR-Crosley.
Ankrum ran six races with DGR-Crosley before his full-time ride hit a speed bump.
After a third place effort at Texas Motor Speedway, Ankrum had sponsorship issues that forced him out of the truck, putting his eligibility at risk.
After two races at NEMCO, with 31st and 30th place finishes at Iowa and Gateway, Ankrum was back in the DGR-Crosley Toyota at Chicagoland.
The next race, at Kentucky, Ankrum beat the odds, and took home a victory at Kentucky Speedway. He followed it up with a second place effort at Pocono Raceway, and sure enough, Ankrum was secured in the 2019 playoffs.
HARRISON BURTON, TODD GILLILAND, BEN RHODES, and SHELDON CREED – DNQ
Four drivers that won’t compete for a championship are four of the most competitive trucks on a week to week basis.
Two Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, failed to secure a victory over the 16 race regular season, despite their teammate truck, the No. 51, winning six of those races between Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle.
Ben Rhodes was the only full-time ThorSport Racing truck to miss the field, despite leading more laps over the season than both Sauter and Crafton. Rhodes had a great shot to take victory many times over the season, but was plagued by bad luck in many race finishes.
Sheldon Creed may not have set the world on fire for most of the 2019 NGOTS season, but towards the end, the rookie started finding his stride, showing speed at Kentucky in leading 36 laps, running in the Top 5 at Pocono until an untimely incident, and back to back runner-up finishes at Eldora and Michigan.
Any of these four drivers could still find their way to victory lane in the final seven races, but none of them will be racing for a championship this season.
It’s crazy to think how the series got to this point, coming into tonight’s playoff opener at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It’s even crazier to think that any one of those eight drivers could walk away as the champion at the end of the 2019 season.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com