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When the checkered flag flies Friday night (Nov. 9) over ISM Raceway in Phoenix, four drivers will know they’ve got the chance to race for the championship when the series visits Homestead-Miami Speedway to close out the year.
GMS Racing teammates Johnny Sauter and Justin Haley have the least amount of pressure on them heading into Friday night. Sauter’s sixth victory of the season at Martinsville Speedway made him the first driver locked into the Championship 4. The driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet had already been in a decent spot to point his way into the title race given how many playoff points from the season he carried with him.
Meanwhile, Haley once again took advantage of Todd Gilliland’s misfortune, this time at Texas Motor Speedway last Friday night to score his third win of the year. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet was running second when Gilliland’s fuel tank ran dry, leaving him to coast to a fourth-place finish. Earlier during the playoffs, Haley was the benefactor when Gilliland’s teammate, Noah Gragson, spun the two drivers out coming into the final turn at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.
For the rest of the playoff drivers, the easiest way to guarantee their spot in the championship battle is a victory Friday night.
Brett Moffitt is currently third in the standings and finds himself 22 points above the cut line. If Matt Crafton or Grant Enfinger were to find Victory Lane Friday night, Moffitt would need to score 51 points to keep his title hopes alive. But if Sauter, Haley, Gragson or a non-playoff driver grabs the win, he would need just 33 points on the night, a seemingly easier mark to reach. The only thing Moffitt does have to face that the rest of the playoff drivers don’t is that Friday night will be making his Camping World Truck Series debut at the track.
Gragson is currently in the fourth and final transfer spot with just an 18-point advantage over the cut line. He would need 38 points and a win by Sauter, Haley, Moffitt or a non-playoff driver to clinch his spot in the Championship 4. A win by Enfinger or Crafton would make it a little more difficult for the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver to lock himself into the title race, and he’d need some help from Moffitt or the other of the aforementioned drivers who didn’t take the win.
ThorSport Racing teammates Enfinger and Crafton have it easy in a way. The best way to guarantee a place in the Championship 4 is to just win the race. They don’t really need to worry about points as both are in a position to need some misfortune from the other playoff contenders to even have a chance to make the field by points.
At this point, it’s hard to really guess who will take those final two championship spots. I’d like to look to the veteran experience with Crafton, however, the No. 88 has struggled with speed for much of the season. The good news is that he’ll be running a Ford engine Friday night instead of the NT1 the team has been using all season, and that likely will be the difference maker.
Similarly, teammate Enfinger just hasn’t quite managed to keep himself out of trouble in most races. It’s quite like Gragson earlier this year where he would be a threat throughout the race, but when it came to closing the deal, he’s only visited Victory Lane once this season.
With all of that said, I tend to lean toward Gragson and Moffitt to solidify their spots in the Championship 4 as both teams have shown the speed needed to contend regularly throughout the season. Sure, both have had silly mistakes or other misfortunes that have derailed strong runs, but when it comes down to it, it’s much easier to stay above a cut line than it is to make up a deficit.
The one thing I am sure of is that the short track in Phoenix is going to put on an excellent race, and keeping an eye on the playoff drivers as they try to keep their title hopes alive is only going to amplify that excitement.
- As of press time, there are 32 trucks entered for this weekend’s race, meaning the series should see its 22nd full field this season on Friday night. Earlier in the week, the streak was in danger as there were only 31 drivers entered. NASCAR Next driver Derek Kraus will make his series debut with Bill McAnally Racing.
- Only 18 drivers entered have prior experience at ISM Raceway, leaving plenty of unknowns for those trying to lock their way into the Championship 4. Moffitt is the only playoff driver who hasn’t raced a truck at the Phoenix facility.
- Landon Huffman will carry the name of Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper Tyler Edenhofer on his No. 38 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet. The officer, who graduated from the academy in May, was killed in the line of duty on July 25, just 52 days after joining the force.
- Post-race penalties were issued for Texas Motor Speedway, and the No. 35 team was hit hard. After a ballast fell off of the truck during the first of two practice sessions last Thursday, crew chief Ryan Bell, truck chief Jerry Kennedy and mechanic Patrick Magee were all suspended for the next three point races. The suspension goes through Feb. 20, 2019.