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Around this time each year, I feel like it’s required to, once again, complain that there are way too many off weeks early in the season. At this point, that argument falls on deaf ears. I mean, sure there’s that extra race in Atlanta to follow-up the season-opener, but that momentum is stopped cold just two weeks in. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t drivers already standing above the competition, though some are for more obvious reasons that others.
Usually, finishes of 15th and third, coupled with an average result of ninth, aren’t the kind of numbers that make you say wow. But for Johnny Sauter, that’s exactly the thought as the series edges closer to the third race on the schedule. The driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet won both of the mid-race stages in the season-opener and appeared to be on his way to Victory Lane at Daytona for the second time in as many years, but a last-lap crash relegated him to that 15th-place result, since he didn’t actually complete the final lap of competition.
And though he never led any laps in Atlanta, a third-place finish is just what the doctor ordered after his Daytona disappointment. He now sits in the runner-up spot in the standings, behind only Christopher Bell, who is the only other driver with two stage wins so far.
The 2016 champion will need to fight his way through the younger talent that has descended upon the series – and you better believe there’s plenty of it – but the reality is that GMS Racing is strong enough to put Sauter in Victory Lane at least once on the way to the playoffs. From there, it’s going to likely come down to the number of playoff points earned throughout the season to ward off any potential bad luck later this season.
You’re probably sitting there wondering how I could possible say the guy sitting outside the top five in points has started off the season right, especially since his best finish two races in is a lackluster ninth. But what’s more important for the No. 17 team is that the speed has been there.
Peters was inside the top five when the field took the white flag at Daytona, however he was one of the 12 trucks collected in the backstretch accident. Instead of a top-five finish, Peters was relegated to 17th, which is hardly indicative of how the rest of the race was run, especially since he was in the top five at the end of the first two stages.
And while Peters was never really a threat for the win in Atlanta, much of the field couldn’t touch winner Christopher Bell anyway.
I’m in no way saying Peters and the No. 17 team are championship material yet. There will have to be quite a few more laps led and maybe a trip or two to Victory Lane, before I’ll go that far. But he’s certainly off to a solid start.
Yes… that Regan Smith. Though he’s only scheduled for 12 races this year currently, finishes of sixth and 12th are just what the doctor ordered for the single-truck operation in Ricky Benton Racing. Parker Kligerman started off last season with three straight top-10 finishes in the No. 92 truck, so Smith does have equipment capable of running with the larger teams. But for RBR, a hard wreck at Kansas sidelined its efforts, leaving Kligerman to cherry pick races where he could.
While it’s a given that Smith will drop through the standings during those race weekends the No. 92 isn’t on the track, the important thing to remember is the results the team manages to post when they do race. The results during the already scheduled weekends could end up leading to sponsorship that would likely expand its efforts.
Sure, Smith isn’t a champion in the making in his current situation, however the future of any organization hinges on financial backing, and that’s something the small team could increase if the performance so far continues.
Kaz Grala and Christopher Bell
Of course, it’s easy to point to this season’s race winners as those who have started off the year right. After all, barring some major, massive collapse – or quite a bit of diversity in the number of victors this season – it’s likely that both have locked themselves into the playoffs with 14 races remaining until the cutoff date.
For Kaz Grala, it’s an opportunity to join an elite group of drivers that have won during their rookie season and scored the Rookie of the Year title. Joining the likes of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Johnny Sauter and Erik Jones, to name a few, is quite the honor, especially given what they’ve already accomplished in their careers.
But perhaps more importantly, the possibility that Grala can also become a rookie champion remains. Sure, there are still 21 races to determine whether he can walk away with the title, however, given the strength GMS Racing showed last year and the consideration that the organization won the championship with Sauter last season, the odds are on his side.
Meanwhile, for Christopher Bell, this season is a chance to break out from the shadows that William Byron’s dominant performance last year put up. Remember that Bell, though he was involved in multiple incidents at Daytona, still managed to bring home an eighth-place finish. So, right away, he’s already started off this year better than 2016, where he literally flew across the start / finish line to a 16th-place result.
Couple that with a victory in Atlanta, and suddenly, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota is looking at a 4.5 average finish two races in. Add in that Bell is the only competitor to have a pair of top-10 results to open up the season, and you’ve got a recipe for success that’s actually started off correctly.
Clearly, two races is hardly an indicator of how the season will go for any of these drivers, however they’re in a better spot than much of the rest of the field currently. And of course, that means that when the bad luck bug bites, it’ll hurt far less for them than it would for others already deeper in the field.
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