Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks
In a Nutshell: During the latest edition of plate race NASCAR Survivor, it looked like the veterans had the votes to knock off the youngsters. But after a Demolition Derby-type affair, stalwarts like Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter quickly learned they didn’t earn immunity from the dreaded Big One. Ben Rhodes got bumped on the backstretch by ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger, losing control of his truck. Eight trucks got wiped out and an 18-year-old teenager emerged as the youngest winner in NASCAR history at Daytona International Speedway. On top was a guy, Kaz Grala, who hadn’t even won a NASCAR race in any division, ever! It’s easily the biggest upset in the Trucks since John King in 2012.
Who Should Have Won: GMS dominated most of the proceedings, but honestly? Matt Crafton, who has been the victim of so many Daytona disasters made the right moves to take the lead heading to the white-flag lap. In a race filled with aggression, drivers making too many mistakes, this two-time Truck Series champ did all the right things.
He fell back when the racing got too rough. His No. 88 team fine-tuned the handling down the stretch. He made a brilliant move to get back in the draft, by Sauter and head to the front. He was just a few feet from being clear of Rhodes’ spinning No. 27 truck as the leader. But then, that’s how the ball bounces for Crafton at Daytona, right? He’s got one top-five finish in 17 career starts here. No wonder his fortunes flipped in a matter of a few seconds…
One Lap, Then One Wreck
Friday night’s race was marred by an 11-truck incident that happened after only one lap. Rookie Chase Briscoe made contact with fellow rookie Noah Gragson in the tri-oval; seconds later, you had thousands of dollars in mangled sheet metal and a whole bunch of darkhorses thinking dark thoughts about their bank accounts.
Among the victims were Clay Greenfield, a guy who runs a limited schedule with an underdog operation; Tommy Joe Martins, last year’s full-time “little man that could” who had to partner up with another team just to make it to Daytona; and Stewart Friesen, a rookie attempting his first full-time season with a new truck sponsored by Halmar International. Heavyweights Gragson, Austin Cindric and Ryan Truex were also knocked out.
“It was good for the lap I got, but I got punted in the back by the [No.] 29 with really tight racing,” Gragson said of the incident. “I knew that there was going to be a Big One, I just didn’t know it was going to happen so early.”
Briscoe, to his credit did take full responsibility for the incident post-race. He was able to recover from the shaky start and wound up third after the last-lap wreck jumbled the field.
“I feel absolutely awful about it,” he said. “Especially that I got our teammate. I got a huge run and really wasn’t knowing what I could do, and we all checked up more than I was anticipating. Just got in the back of [Gragson] and just absolutely hate it for everybody that was involved. Not the way I want to start off my career.”
Gragson liked a tweet from Frontstretch based on those quotes late Friday night, a sign the driver will have no ill will towards his fellow rookie moving forward.
And Then… There Was The Last-Lap Wreck
The remaining portion of the field went through the rest of the race with minimal incidents. There was a crash between leaders Brett Moffitt and Christopher Bell at the end of segment 1; after that, it was basically a handful of one and two-car incidents… until the white-flag lap.
It’s hard to assign blame for an incident when so many trucks were fighting for victory. Enfinger took the “credit,” though; he was right behind Rhodes and appeared to create an awkward bump draft which loosened Rhodes up.
Trying to push our @ThorSportRacing trucks to the win last night and I just got him in a bad spot. Thankful everyone is ok.
— Grant Enfinger (@GrantEnfinger) February 25, 2017
Sauter also felt like he caused chaos, missing an opportunity to block Crafton for the lead in a move which caused a three-wide jumble throughout the field. It was a bummer for the veteran, close to repeating in this race for the first time since Todd Bodine did so in 2008-09.
But in the end, the crash that left Crafton flipping and another junkyard in the middle of the backstretch could best be attributed to the chaos of plate racing. Winner Grala, the benefactor of the whole mess is just 18 and already understands how the ball bounces.
“Last year, I was with Christopher Bell and we pushed Johnny Sauter, another GMS truck, to the win,” he said. “We ended up flipping upside down. You just never know how the end is going to be. I was a little nervous, but I’m sure proud now.”
Welcome, Kaz Grala
The Truck Series rookie, speaking well beyond his 18 years of maturity was a breath of fresh air Friday night in a sport in need of unique personalities. He never stopped smiling during his 10-minute press conference in the media center. He had a sense of naivete around the whole experience which will serve him well towards a fan base sick of feeling like the drivers today are rich and privileged.
Of note: Grala hadn’t even won a major NASCAR race before Friday night. Now, he’s basically in the Truck Series playoff and has six months to prepare to battle for a championship. All this good fortune from a driver who didn’t even know how to communicate with his crew over the final few laps!
“My radio actually came unplugged towards the end of the race, so I was a little bit nervous and frantic at the end,” he said of the finish. “I knew I wasn’t going to lift out of the throttle, so I just tugged the wheel left, crossed my fingers, closed my eyes a little bit, and I’m really glad it worked out.”
How could you not appreciate the innocence and realness of that quote? King proved to be a one-race wonder, the last surprise Daytona winner but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Grala.
- Reigning series champion Sauter won the first two segments Friday night and showed he clearly hasn’t lost a beat from last year’s impressive title run. Sure, the last lap didn’t go his way but the veteran will be a force to be reckoned with throughout 2017. As for Crafton? Ditto.
- A shout-out to a quietly strong performance from Austin Wayne Self, a driver who wasn’t even supposed to be driving three weeks ago, who took his cobbled-together No. 32 truck to a second-place finish. Daytona is one of just 4-5 races last year’s rookie will run throughout 2017 but he made it look easy driving the second truck for AM Racing. Add in a top-10 finish by JJ Yeley (ninth) and the team will be celebrating this week like they won the race.
- The Nemecheks, John Hunter and Joe wound up fourth and fifth in the race. John Hunter, a victim of the Lap 2 wreck put the type of yeoman’s repair work in that championship programs need in order to win one. Compare that with Moffitt, whose truck certainly had more damage but had the five-minute clock run out on them in their bid to return to the track.
Truck Rookie Report
2017 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 13 Cody Coughlin
No. 18 Noah Gragson
No. 19 Austin Cindric
No. 29 Chase Briscoe
No. 33 Kaz Grala
No. 49 Wendell Chavous
No. 98 Grant Enfinger
No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 3 (Grala, Briscoe, Snyder)
Rookie of the Race: Kaz Grala (race winner)
A Look At The Points
Grala, by virtue of his win and segment points jumps out to a 14-point lead in the standings over two-time segment winner Sauter. Briscoe, Rhodes (despite starting the wreck) and Joe Nemechek round out the top five in the standings.
You wonder if the strong start by father Joe makes him think about going for the title. He’s scheduled to run at least the first three races for the Nemecheks’ family-owned operation.
News And Notes
Austin Wayne Self told Frontstretch he’ll run a total of four or five races this season, including Eldora, both Texas events and potentially the road course out in Canada. Self wasn’t even scheduled to run Daytona but replaced Justin Fontaine after the teenager suffered an L1 vertebrae fracture in Sunday’s ARCA race.
“Jerry Baxter (crew chief), the whole No. 33 team, GMS Racing, really gave me a fast truck. That’s what it takes. Get a fast truck to be up front, put yourself in these positions, and these kinds of things happen.” Kaz Grala
“It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I got an opening down on the bottom, took that, and I think that’s what really put us in the position to be the runner-up there. It got wild.” Austin Wayne Self
“It was definitely a welcoming, that’s for sure. It was pretty hairy. The whole race was really pretty wild, and you knew it would be on the last lap. If you just watch any of the past races, you’d know that’s how the Truck Series is and that’s what makes it so exciting.” Chase Briscoe
Up Next: The Trucks go right to Atlanta for a Saturday showdown before a month’s worth of off time. The Active Pest Control 200 goes green at 4:30 ET, televised by FOX Sports 1. You can also listen to the action live on your local MRN affiliate.