NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: Gearing Up for the Inaugural Chase for the Champsionship

Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks

This weekend, the Camping World Truck Series takes to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first race in the Round of 8 ahead of crowning the winner of the inaugural Chase. While many dreaded the announcement of the truck series chase NASCAR back in January, the reality is that we’re just seven races away from crowning the 2016 champion, using a format that mirrors the one used in the Sprint Cup Series, with a few modifications.

The seven-race Chase will feature eight drivers competing for three rounds, while the final four remaining will settle the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Drivers will receive three bonus points for victories during the first 16 races of the year, and at the end of each round, two drivers will be eliminated from the championship battle.

Designed to “make drivers better prepared to handle the next level” in the sport, the Chase has long been criticized by fans who have wanted NASCAR to move back to a season-long point system. But every team and driver has been well aware of the rules since before the season began, and regardless of how “fair” you think it is to determine a champion using the Chase system, it will happen once the series finishes out the final third of its schedule over the next month-and-a-half.

Perhaps what stands out a bit more is the uncertainty that follows the Chase this year. While there’s plenty people can draw from what they’ve seen in years past in the Sprint Cup Series, the shortened length of the Truck Series Chase creates more of a sense of urgency, with only seven events to make the case for being the champion.

And maybe, just maybe, that will create even more exciting racing for fans to enjoy.

The full Chase schedule can be found below.

William Byron – No. 9 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota

william-byron-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 5
  • Top 5s: 8
  • Top 10s: 10
  • Laps Led: 423
  • Average Finish: 9.6

Thanks to his five victories during the regular season, William Byron enters New Hampshire this weekend with a nine point advantage over Matt Crafton, who is seeded second, and a 15 marker lead over Timothy Peters, who is seeded eighth. Already, he has a bit of cushion in case he struggles this weekend, though the Byron can’t afford to let his guard down, despite being the top seeded driver.

The rookie took the series by storm and shocked everyone when he won four of six races from Texas through Pocono, but since then, he hasn’t been a major threat for Victory Lane. In the final four races leading up to the beginning of the Chase, Byron has finishes of fourth, fourth, 10th and 30th, and you may be asking yourself why that’s a bad thing. The finishes themselves aren’t that bad, with the exception of Chicagoland where Byron brought out two of the race’s cautions, but what’s more telling is that he led just 10 laps in those four events combined. And compared to the rest of the season, it’s a mini slump for the No. 9 team.

While there’s no reason to believe Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle can’t pull everything back together, the latest results and speeds on the track just haven’t been there. The good news is that Byron drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports, which is arguably one of the strongest teams in the series and has been for a couple years now, and while past success is not a guarantee for the future, it would be shocking to see Byron fail to move past the first round following Talladega.

Matt Crafton – No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota

matt-crafton-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 2
  • Top 5s: 5
  • Top 10s: 11
  • Laps Led: 421
  • Average Finish: 11.8

Matt Crafton is by far the most experienced of the bunch here, except for maybe Johnny Sauter. With two championships already to his name, the Truck Series lifer has plenty of experience on the big stage, though he has not yet competed in a Chase. But his experience level could allow for the level head that’s needed to make it through the pressure of making it through each round.

Last season, things didn’t turn out well when Crafton battled rookie Erik Jones, and the gap grew in the final races of the schedule. But years of experience at the remaining tracks on the schedule does gift Crafton a boost over much of his competition. The question is whether the addition of a third full-time team, fielded for rookie Rico Abreu, has spread to organization’s resources just a little too thin to truly compete for the championship.

Regardless of how the Chase turns out for the No. 88 team, ThorSport should walk away from this season proud of its efforts. Facing a major fire at the shop like the organization did is enough for some teams to need to take a break. But instead of hanging their heads and working hard to get back on track, ThorSport jumped around to different makeshift shops and managed to remain competitive while doing so. In fact, the team nearly had two of its three full-time trucks in the Chase this year.

And that’s a great reason to be proud of the 2016 season, no matter the outcome.

John Hunter Nemechek – No. 8 NEMCO Motorsports Chevrolet

john-hunter-nemechek-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 2
  • Top 5s: 4
  • Top 10s: 8
  • Laps Led: 81
  • Average Finish: 11.5

John Hunter Nemechek will likely have his work cut out for him after the scuffle with Cole Custer on the final lap at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park a few weeks ago. While there hasn’t been much to be seen at this point from Custer as far as whether retaliation is on his mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two get together on the track. After all, I did hear mention on the race broadcast from Chicagoland that the pair rode together for driver intros around the track, and while Nemechek appeared to be trying to make small talk, Custer looked the other way and didn’t say anything.

But with all of that said, Nemechek has a knack for being around at the finish, despite adversity he faces on the track. That, combined with the leadership of crew chief Gere Kennon and the support and advice of father Joe Nemechek, should keep the sophomore driver calm.

It’s hard to say how Nemechek may truly perform as this year is his first full-time season – he made 18 starts last year after turning 18 mid-season – but the fact remains that NEMCO Motorsports has far exceeded the expectations for a team that’s been seemingly limited by sponsorship dollars.

Christopher Bell – No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota

christopher-bell-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 1
  • Top 5s: 7
  • Top 10s: 11
  • Laps Led: 186
  • Average Finish: 10.9

Christopher Bell’s season can best be described as a roller coaster. Despite having more top 10s than teammate and point leader William Byron, Bell has had some of the worst luck you can imagine for a rookie. And going airborne in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway was only the beginning.

After that 16th-place finish, Bell followed up with a DNF in Atlanta and a subpar performance at Martinsville where he finished 19th. Then luck turned around for the rookie, who strung together three top-10 finishes before going to Texas Motor Speedway, where he made a mistake shifting and failed to complete a lap before he was left to retire due to engine difficulties.

But the good news for the No. 4 team, which won the championship with Erik Jones last season, is that the last nine races have resulted in eight top 10s, including a win at Gateway Motorsports Park and five top-5 finishes. That’s certainly the kind of momentum anyone would want coming in a championship battle as the season winds down.

Johnny Sauter – No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet

johnny-sauter-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 1
  • Top 5s: 8
  • Top 10s: 12
  • Laps Led: 74
  • Average Finish: 9.6

Johnny Sauter defected from ThorSport Racing beginning this season and wasted little time showing that he had made the right decision. He outlasted the rest of the field and made it through to carnage at Daytona to lock himself into the Chase with the first race of the season. But it doesn’t end there.

GMS Racing, in general, has shown increased speed this season and has two of its three full-time entries in the Chase. Additionally, three of the organization’s teams have visited Victory Lane this year, proof that there has been a marked improvement.

But as I looked at the season statistics for the No. 21 team, what stood out for me were Sauter’s results. Sure, he hasn’t led very many laps this season (as of now, the second lowest in any of his full-time seasons), but what really makes you take notice is that Sauter has a single finished outside the top 10 (13th at Eldora) since posting a 16th-place finish at Kansas in May. If you’re counting, that’s 11 out of the last 12 races inside the top 10, and only four of those results were outside the top 5.

It’s going to take more than consistency to win the championship this season, especially with the elimination format of the Chase, but the bottom line is that GMS and Sauter are already equipped with the speed and consistency, meaning more wins aren’t that far away.

Ben Kennedy – No. 33 GMS Racing Chevrolet

ben-kennedy-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 1
  • Top 5s: 2
  • Top 10s: 7
  • Laps Led: 24
  • Average Finish: 11.9

Ben Kennedy has had a bit of an interesting season, or an interesting career if you think about it. After spending his rookie season with the now-defunct Turner Scott Motorsports, he landed at Red Horse Racing for 2015. Fast forward to this season, and RHR once again announced Kennedy in its No. 11 for the season opener at Daytona, but after making three starts, the original schedule for his tenure with the team, the third-year driver was once again left scrambling to find a ride.

Enter GMS Racing. It took much of the season, but Kennedy finally tallied his first career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway when he came out on top in a spirited battle with Brett Moffitt, who was competing in the No. 11 Kennedy had previously driven. A hard wreck at Chicagoland Speedway brought Kennedy his first DNF since the season opener at Daytona and kills momentum that the team had been building in the last five to seven races.

After that wreck at Chicagoland, Kennedy may have a bit of handicap heading into this weekend’s Chase opener. The contact with the wall resulted in an injury to his hand that ended up bandaged before he emerged from the infield care center. While a hard injury doesn’t spell disaster for Kennedy – just ask Brian Scott – it’s certainly another wildcard in what is already an uncertain playoff outlook.

Daniel Hemric – No. 19 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford

daniel-hemric-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 0
  • Top 5s: 8
  • Top 10s: 13
  • Laps Led: 37
  • Average Finish: 7.9

Daniel Hemric, a driver many had expected to find his way to Victory Lane by this point in his career, leads all of his Chase competitors in average finish, including the current leader, who holds five wins heading into the playoffs. I continue to believe it won’t be long before Hemric tallies his first career win, but perhaps what’s more important is that he enters the Chase as one of the best drivers in the series who has yet to score a victory.

Hemric and the No. 19 team have already matched their top 10 total for the entire 23 race schedule from last year, and their top 5 tally is already doubled that of the 2015 season. More importantly, though, is that Hemric enters the Chase with a tremendous amount of momentum. After all, the driver of the No. 19 Ford heads into New Hampshire this weekend with four straight top-3 finishes, including a runner-up result last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

While NASCAR has touted the “win and you’re in” format of the Chase, it’s certainly possible Hemric can pull a Ryan Newman and make his way to the Championship 4 without winning. But whether he can take home the big trophy without going to Victory Lane remains to be seen, and given the talent and ability of the eight drivers racing for the championship, it’s going to take more than just consistency to sit at the head table in November.

Timothy Peters – No. 17 Red Horse Racing Toyota

timothy-peters-headshot2016 Stats:

  • Starts: 16
  • Wins: 0
  • Top 5s: 4
  • Top 10s: 10
  • Laps Led: 78
  • Average Finish: 10.0

Timothy Peters was probably the driver sweating the most at Chicagoland last weekend. Barely in the Chase on points heading into the regular season finale, Peters couldn’t afford to face any adversity and would have preferred to visit Victory Lane to throw his name into the hat for this season’s championship.

But what the Chase does for the No. 17 team is that it helps to erase what has been a rather ho-hum season. In the first 13 races on the schedule, Peters led a combined 36 laps before following it up with 42 circuits at the high-paced Michigan International Speedway before he finished runner-up to Brett Moffitt. It was the one race where it looked like Peters had a realistic shot at Victory Lane.

The No. 17 team continues to strive to find the front of the field, but it could turn out to be too little, too late for Peters to snag a championship this year. After the way Peters has performed thus far, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him as one of the drivers eliminated at the end of this round when the checkered flag flies at Talladega.

Champion: William Byron. I mean, can you really pick anyone else after the way he’s exceeded expectations all season?

Best of the Rest: Cameron Hayley and Cole Custer enter the playoffs tied for ninth in the standings, and that battle could go either way, especially since both were threats to join the Chase field anyway. But you can’t count out Tyler Reddick, who sits just eight markers behind the pair. While all eyes will be focused on the championship battle, you can bet this trio will engage in their own battle. But in the end, Hayley takes the edge since ThorSport is a stronger team overall than Brad Keselowski Racing or the lone JR Motorsports ride.

Truckin’ Tidbits:

  • John Wes Townley will split his race time this weekend between New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway. He’ll run the ARCA race in Kentucky on Friday before flying to New Hampshire afterward to pilot the No. 05 truck in New Hampshire for Saturday’s race. In his place, Cup driver Matt DiBenedetto will drive Townley’s truck during practice at New Hampshire on Friday in preparation for Saturday’s qualifyin and race.

“He’s got a lot of laps on that race track,” Townley said via a team release. “So, I’m confident we’ll have a good setup underneath me when I climb on board Saturday morning.”

  • After initially announcing post-race inspection from Chicagoland Speedway was complete with no issues on Friday night, NASCAR revealed Saturday morning that Kyle Busch’s winning truck was found to be too low, resulting in a failure. Crew chief Wes Ward has been fined $6,000 and placed on probation through Dec. 31, and the team has been penalized 10 owner championship points.
  • As of press time, there are 32 trucks on this week’s entry list. Notable entries include Alon Day, making his debut with Contreras Motorsports, Kaz Grala behind the wheel of the No. 24 for GMS Racing and Cody Coughlin in the No. 51 at Kyle Busch Motorsports. Additionally, Brett Moffitt will return to pilot the No. 11 Toyota for Red Horse Racing.
  • Ben Kennedy will be racing sore this weekend after hard contact with the wall in a late-race accident at Chicagoland Speedway. He emerged from the infield care center after being released with his hand bandaged in what is expected to be just a bruise. Kennedy was scheduled to get the hand x-rayed over the weekend, but he and the team did not release results of that imaging.

“I don’t know. I hit the wall and it just hit something, the wheel or something. I tried to brace myself and just didn’t have enough time to get it where I needed to, to be safe for when I hit the wall. So, just nicked it a little bit.”

  • Following a blown engine in the closing laps at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, Jordan Anderson and Bolen Motorsports could end up forced to skip New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. The adversity isn’t first for the team, which saw its mile-and-a-half truck crashed at Kansas Speedway earlier this year. Anderson has created a website where interested fans or corporate sponsors may make an investment directly. Packages range from $20 to $5,000.

Camping World Truck Series Chase Schedule

cwts-round-of-8-graphic

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Austin Dillon

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Date/Time: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: John Wes Townley

Talladega Superspeedway

Date/Time: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Timothy Peters

cwts-round-of-6-graphic

Martinsville Speedway

Date/Time: Saturday, Oct.29 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Matt Crafton

Texas Motor Speedway

Date/Time: Friday, Nov.4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Erik Jones

Phoenix International Raceway

Date/Time: Friday, Nov. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Timothy Peters

cwts-championship-4-graphic

Homestead-Miami Speedway

Date/Time: Friday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET
Defending Winner: Matt Crafton

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