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When the checkered flag flies over the field at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 2016 season will come to a close. The champion will be crowned, the champagne will flow and the year will be capped off with what promises to be an exciting race with plenty of storylines to follow along the way.
Four Drivers, One Champion
Four drivers will enter Homestead with a shot at the championship, but only one will walk away with the title. Regardless of how you feel about the implementation of the Chase in the Truck Series, the bottom line is that the season finale should bring about some of the most excitement that the Homestead race has held in series history.
Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, Timothy Peters and Christopher Bell enter Friday night, all with an equal shot at the championship. And while you could make an argument that the most deserving driver doesn’t even get to run for the title, the simple fact is that all teams have played by the same rules all season.
The trio of veterans, accompanied by the rookie in Bell, have 200 miles to put their best foot (or truck) forward, while fighting 28 other drivers for the top spot in the race.
Championship 4 Homestead Statistics
Looking strictly at prior results at Homestead, you have to look at Peters as the favorite, however Crafton brings with him a pair of championships and the ability to keep his cool, and also has “nothing to lose.” Bell is the biggest wild card of the bunch, given that he ran out of fuel with just four laps remaining in his lone start at the mile-and-a-half oval.
With all of that said, my gut feeling is that this championship is Sauter’s to lose. Just consider how so many people doubted his departure from ThorSport Racing, a proven championship organization, only to have him snag the win in the season-opener. Couple that with the team peaking at the perfect point in the season, and unless Sauter finds himself caught up in another driver’s mess, he’ll very likely be the one celebrating his first career title.
William Byron’s Last Hurrah
Simply put, William Byron should be racing for the championship, especially since he’s got six wins and 15 top 10s in 22 races this year. But the disappointing fact for the No. 9 team is that a blown engine cost them the chance to be included in this battle.
Before you get up in arms about how awful the Chase is when the winningest driver isn’t included in the title fight, consider for a moment that, despite his success, Byron wouldn’t be the point leader, even if the Chase weren’t being used. That’s right, Sauter would actually hold a nine-point advantage over Byron in the season-long standings, though the latter would at least have a shot at winning the championship in that scenario.
With all of that said, Friday night’s race at Homestead not only closes out the 2016 season, it also ends Byron’s tenure with Kyle Busch Motorsports. After taking the series by storm, Hendrick Motorsports pounced at the opportunity to add the raw talent to its development pool, opting to put Byron in a JR Motorsports XFINITY entry next year. But before his time in the Truck Series ends, the 18-year-old would love nothing more than to close out the season in Victory Lane.
“We tried to get one last week, but to get a seventh win would really cap this year off. A win at Homestead would also give our team the Owner’s championship for KBM,” Byron said in a team release. “Since we were eliminated from the Driver’s championship last week, it would mean a lot to my team to be able to give Kyle and Samantha (Busch) their fifth owner’s title. We’ve got an amazing team and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) has done a fantastic job this year helping me grow as a race car driver.”
While Byron doesn’t have any prior Truck Series experience at Homestead, half of his six victories came on mile-and-a-half tracks, and he had the chance to test at the track in August.
Noah Gragson Completes His Prep for KBM
Next season, NASCAR Next driver Noah Gragson will join Kyle Busch Motorsports to run full-time toward the Rookie of the Year title, and before he dives in head first, the 18-year-old has a couple races to get under his belt, including Friday night at Homestead.
In a partnership with Richie Wauters Racing, KBM fielded the No. 18 Toyota for Gragson in his series debut, which wasn’t without its incidents. The first came when the debuting driver found himself in the middle of a three-wide battle with Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric. You know what happened there, though he was able to avoid contact and continue.
Later, Rico Abreu and Kaz Grala tangled, though Gragson somehow managed to miss the pair of trucks as both crashed hard. In the end, he finished a respectable 16th on the lead lap and gained valuable experience along the way.
“I learned a tremendous amount last week in Phoenix. Learning the aero, the way the trucks handle and how to work around the field were all new to me,” Gragson said. “I have a lot to learn about racing in the NCWTS, but I am excited about the future. Richie (Wauters) and the team did an incredible job of giving me a great truck. I got myself in a little pinch early, but we were able to recover our Tundra well, thanks to the hard work of everyone at RWR, KBM and Toyota.”
Gragson will once again pilot the No. 18 Toyota Friday night as he continues to prepare for the 2017 season. The extra seat time should allow the upcoming rookie a chance to familiarize himself with the trucks and the aerodynamics that affect them while he has little to lose.
- John Wes Townley will once again sit out this weekend due to his ankle injury. In his place, Brady Bowell will pilot the No. 05 truck in the season finale.
- As of press time, there are 35 trucks on the entry list for Homestead, meaning three teams will go home disappointed after qualifying. Notables for this weekend include Grant Enfinger behind the wheel of the No. 92 in place of Parker Kligerman and Kyle Larson in the No. 24 for GMS Racing.
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