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Tracking the Trucks: Johnny Sauter Victorious as the Playoff Field is Set at Bristol

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In a Nutshell: Johnny Sauter took his fifth victory of 2018 at Bristol Motor Speedway Thursday night just 0.236 seconds ahead of Stewart Friesen.

“I’m so proud of this team. I knew we had a great truck today,” Sauter said. “What a way to cap off the regular season with a win. I had to race really hard with the [No.] 52 (Friesen) there for a while, which was exciting.

“I’ve never won at Bristol before, so I was pumped. I’m so lucky I’ve got this group of guys. We won at Bristol – this is the ultimate. For a short track guy, and I consider myself a short track guy, to get a win at a place like this is so special. I’m just pumped and I can’t wait to start our championship run.”

The driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet took advantage of a late-race motor issue for dominant driver John Hunter Nemechek to win the UNOH 200. Nemechek, Parker Kligerman and Todd Gilliland rounded out the top five.

Nemechek swept both stages and nearly won the whole thing, but relinquished the top spot with just five laps remaining.

Justin Haley quietly finished sixth after starting 11th, followed by Ben Rhodes. Matt Crafton ended up eighth. Noah Gragson and Grant Enfinger rounded out the top 10.

Simply starting the race clinched the regular season championship for Sauter and granted him an additional 15 playoff points to take along with him on the hunt for a second championship. He enters the playoffs next weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park with a 15-point lead over Brett Moffitt.

Who Should Have Won: John Hunter Nemechek had the field covered at Bristol. After pole-sitter Christopher Bell led the first 31 laps, the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet checked out on the field, opening up a more than six-second lead before the end of stage one. He went on to sweep both stages and nearly won the race after leading a race-high 104 laps. But a slight stumble gave Sauter the opening he needed to score his fifth win of the season.

Race Rundown

Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton Lock Up Final 2 Playoff Spots

When the checkered flag dropped over Bristol Thursday night, the 2018 championship field was set. Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley and Ben Rhodes were already guaranteed their playoff spots with a combined 11 wins this season.

Once Grant Enfinger started the race, he locked himself into the championship battle as well. Meanwhile, Stewart Friesen solidified his spot in the playoffs with a seventh-place spot at the end of stage one. He went on to finish in the runner-up position by the time the race ended.

But Matt Crafton had to wait until the checkered flag flew and Sauter took his fifth win of the season to know he would get the shot to race for the championship this season.

Friesen and Crafton enter the playoffs seeded fifth and eight, respectively.

Todd Gilliland Recovers to Top 5 After Early Spin

After missing a handful of races earlier this season before his 18th birthday, Todd Gilliland entered Bristol needing a victory to make the playoffs. And despite a lot of hope and momentum on his side, it looked like his shot at the win was over before it ever began.

On lap 69, Gilliland got loose while racing inside Jesse Little and slid up into the driver of the No. 97 Ford. The damage on Little’s truck was much worse than Gilliland’s, though he did spin and lost a ton of track position. To add insult to injury, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota was busted for pitting outside his pit box and was held a lap before he was able to resume.

Despite the setback, Gilliland kept a level head and capitalized on a wave around to rejoin the lead lap under the fifth and final caution. He raced his way all the way up to an eventual fifth-place finishing position and may have had a shot at Victory Lane if not for the 77-lap green-flag run to close out the race.

“Spinning out – your pride is crushed there. It’s one of the worst things that could happen,” Gilliland explained. “Then just getting that one lap penalty really put us behind and then after that Kyle (Busch) just came on the radio and said we really needed to work the top here.

“We’ve watched plenty of film with him doing it, so there’s no reason that we couldn’t and luckily we were able to get around these guys fairly quick. That was a lot of fun. That was the most fun I’ve had in a truck race by far.”

While he didn’t make the playoffs, which is any driver’s goal, especially in their rookie season, Gilliland should walk away knowing his team is making strides each week. Even a spin and a mistake on pit road didn’t doom the No. 4 team and a win could be just around the corner.

Christopher Bell Falters in Series Return

Replacing an ill Harrison Burton, who was originally scheduled to pilot the No. 51 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Bell made his first Truck Series start of the season at Bristol.

On short notice, the 2017 series champion jumped in the truck qualified on the pole. He went on to lead the first 31 laps before relinquishing the top spot to John Hunter Nemechek, who clearly had the truck to beat at Bristol.

But despite losing the lead, Bell remained inside the top five for much of the race before he suffered power steering problems late. When the checkered flag flew, he was 28th.

Quick Hits:

  • Stefan Parsons and Codie Rohrbaugh made their Truck Series debuts at Bristol Thursday night. While Parsons joined a team in Premium Motorsports that was already established in the series, Rohrbaugh brought his family-owned team to its first ever race and made the field on speed. Both drivers survived the 200-lap race and finished 16th and 17th, respectively.
  • Matt Crafton’s No. 88 Ford was missing one lugnut during post-race inspection. That will result in a $2,500 fine for crew chief Junior Joiner. All other trucks passed the at-track inspection and none were taken back to the NASCAR R&D Center.
  • Gray Gaulding, Timothy Peters, B.J. McLeod, Norm Benning and Jennifer Jo Cobb failed to qualify for the race at Bristol.

Truck Rookie Report

2018 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 4 Todd Gilliland
No. 13 Myatt Snider
No. 25 Dalton Sargeant
No. 45 Justin Fontaine
No. 54 Bo LeMastus

No. of rookies in the race: 4

No. of rookies to finish in the top 10: 1; Todd Gilliland, finished fifth

Rookie of the Race: Gilliland

Points Update: The playoff field is officially set. Johnny Sauter holds a 15-point advantage over Brett Moffitt. Noah Gragson is seeded third, followed by Ben Rhodes. Stewart Friesen rounds out the top five. Grant Enfinger sits sixth, followed by Justin Haley. Matt Crafton rounds out this year’s playoff field.

As far as those outside the top eight, Myatt Snider leads the charge there with a seven-point advantage over fellow rookie Dalton Sargeant. Just one marker back is Todd Gilliland in 11th, followed by Cody Coughlin. Austin Hill, Austin Wayne Self and Wendell Chavous round out the top 15.

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Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park next Sunday for a road course showdown to open the playoffs. Coverage for the Chevrolet Silverado 250 begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1; the race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.

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Tom B

Johnny Sauter is the biggest sore loser in NASCAR. He makes Kyle Busch look like a Poly Anna.

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