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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Tracking the Trucks: 2019 M&M’s 200 at Iowa

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In a Nutshell: With arguably the fastest truck in the field in the hands of a debutante, Ross Chastain capitalized on a hard charge in the first stage to dominate the rest of Sunday’s rain-delayed M&M’s 200, scoring his second career NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory. 

Or so fans thought. As of 3:30 p.m. ET, NASCAR stripped Chastain of his win in Sunday’s M&M’s 200 at Iowa Speedway. Chastain’s truck was found to be too low in post-race inspection, and though Niece Motorsports can appeal it, this appears to have been a clear violation:

NASCAR named Brett Moffitt the winner, all but locking the defending Truck Series champion and GMS Racing’s No. 24 team into the playoffs.

Who Should Have Won: Chandler Smith. Starting from the pole after qualifying was rained out, the 16-year-old drove away from the field for the first 52 laps of Sunday’s race, leading by more than three seconds while dealing with radio issues that left him unable to communicate with the team during the first run. Losing track position after pit stops to fix the radio issues, Smith put on a clinic in traffic, moving from 15th to fifth in the second stage. Smith’s pit crew did such stellar work during the second stage break that the No. 51 was slated to start alongside leader Chastain, only to lose that position to a pit road speeding penalty. Smith would battle back into the top 10 by race’s end, but wasn’t helped by a race that went green (there was only one yellow in the last 70 laps).

While that speeding penalty was on Smith, the fact that he lost track position while Chastain’s crew got away with a blatant uncontrolled tire violation (more on that later) dramatically altered the race. Had the No. 51 been able to maintain track position during that questionable pit cycle, it may have been consecutive wins for the KBM flagship.

Sunday’s Race Rundown

Chastain’s decision to make a mid-season change to pursue a Truck Series title appeared validated in spades with Sunday’s performance. Though the post-race inspection failure means Chastain will have to win yet another race to actually have a shot at the playoffs, Niece Motorsports is playing with the big boys in the truck garage now. There won’t be a hungrier team in the garage at Gateway.

Except, of course, for Moffitt’s No. 24. Despite sitting fifth in points and comfortably within the playoff spots in the truck standings, Moffitt has been visibly frustrated over the past month, be it after a late-race scrap with Stewart Friesen costing him a good finish at Kansas or failing to crack the top 10 in the past two intermediate races leading up to Iowa. Despite the growing pains of being with a new team, Moffitt and Co. now have a win. They’re in the playoffs. Expect to see that team run like gangbusters now that the millstone’s off their necks.

Before Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill sparked arguably the most heated episode of the 2019 season, the storyline of Sunday’s race short of Chastain was Kyle Busch Motorsports. For one, 16-year-old pole sitter Smith made truck racing look easy, driving away from the field early and finishing eighth in his Truck debut without incident. Smith’s performance was an accomplishment for the ARCA prospect, as he bested KBM teammates Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst doing so.

The fact that the No. 51, at least in the early stage of Sunday’s race, appeared so much faster than the rest of the KBM stable did not go unnoticed:

Which begs the question, especially seeing as owner Kyle Busch made the issue public by openly chastising the performance of full-time drivers Gilliland and Harrison Burton: Is this a case of Smith the prospect being that good? Or is the No. 51 truck ahead of everyone, including the other teams at KBM? I’m not taking anything away from Smith, who between his performance Sunday and his ARCA win at Madison Friday night, has served notice he’s going to be a force in stock car racing for a while to come. 

KEITH: ARCA RACING SERIES BREAKDOWN: 2019 SHORE LUNCH 200 AT MADISON

But the No. 51 team this season has won six of 10 races run in the series. Five of those races came with the most talented driver in NASCAR behind the wheel, with Kyle Busch also benefiting from the hours of extra track time that comes from doing double or triple duty on a NASCAR weekend. And now, over the last two weeks, that truck has proven so stout that a driver who hasn’t raced in any form of big league NASCAR in over two years won his return race, and now strong enough for a 16-year-old to gap a former truck champion in Matt Crafton despite missing out on track-time over the weekend due to rain and having no radio communications. 

Maybe Gilliland and Burton need to be given a few races in the No. 51? That might be a better barometer for the health of the KBM development stable.

As was previously mentioned, Chastain’s victory (before it was stripped) was aided by the fact that the team got away scot-free for what was clearly an uncontrolled tire violation (at least as the violation is called in 2019). Though the tire in question never left Chastain’s pit box, it was out of arms length of a crew member for well over a full second during the stop. However (though some did tweet that NASCAR officials discussed a penalty), no penalty was assessed. And FOX’s broadcast booth shed some light on why:

Call it cheap, call it lazy, call it unfortunate if you’re feeling sympathetic. The fact that NASCAR refused to trot out its major league officiating equipment to a standalone race is concrete proof that the sport is being inconsistent in how it officiates points races over the course of the season. In this particular case, a driver that already had to get an unprecedented exemption from NASCAR to switch the titles he was chasing mid-season to be eligible for Truck Series points now had a race win that could have clinched him a playoff berth aided by lackadaisical officiating. 

Besides calling the integrity of the 2019 championship into legitimate question, this poses a larger concern for the sport as it heads towards a heavily revamped schedule in 2021 that may well feature more standalone races and tackling venues that aren’t part of the entrenched NASCAR footprint of recent seasons. Fans need to be loud on this issue, either Hawkeye officiating takes place at every Truck race, period, or it takes place at none of them. Consistent inconsistency masquerading as officiating has no place in any major sport. 

Not to mention the fact that such a failure in officiating is going to overshadow the fact that NASCAR actually had the backbone to do what the fans have been clamoring for: stripping wins from teams that fail post-race inspection.

Now, the fireworks. On lap 138, Austin Hill visibly dumped Sauter in turn 4, sending the No. 13 truck backwards into the wall. After being involved in a wreck with Hill last week at Texas and in a race that Sauter had already been involved in an incident in (he made contact with Norm Benning early in the first stage), something snapped, and Sauter became Cole Trickle, running down Hill’s Toyota under yellow and wrecking the No. 16 in turn 1:

FOX’s camera crew was able to find video from earlier, when Sauter made contact with Hill racing for position that seemed to precipitate the lap 138 incident. But the real debate came shortly after Sauter’s antics, which resulted in NASCAR parking the No. 13 truck for the remainder of Sunday’s race. There were fans that wanted Sauter parked for multiple races after Iowa. There were fans who wanted Hill parked as well for deliberately dumping the No. 13. There were fans rightfully asking questions as to how Sauter’s playoff eligibility would be impacted should he be parked. 

The verdict was a simple one from where I’m sitting; Sauter needs to be harshly penalized for his actions. In both his and Austin Hill’s case, I’d be ticked as a truck owner, using racecars as weapons is a completely selfish action that sticks the crew guys with the check. But there’s (usually) been a line drawn between actions under green and under yellow, and for good reason. Under yellow, safety and cleanup crews are at work, and pit road is far more active. There is an absolute need to keep competitors in line and running caution speed. That can’t be achieved if drivers are looking over their shoulders to see if they’re about to be wrecked.

CHEEK: SAUTER, HILL TANGLE AT IOWA

Watch the video of Hill versus Sauter closely.

It’s bad enough that Sauter clearly was struggling with keeping his damaged truck under control, with that resulting in the No. 13 pegging Austin Hill square in the driver’s side door. But what’s more, Hill can be seen speeding away before the wreck, trying to get away from Sauter. I can’t fault Austin Hill for trying to get away, that’s instinct taking over. The fault lies on Sauter for creating that exigency under yellow. NASCAR can draw a clear line in the sand over yellow-flag antics by parking Sauter, and they damn well should.

Frontstretch alum Nick Bromberg did pose an interesting question as to whether Sauter being parked would impact his playoff eligibility. Rather than getting into minutiae there, let’s make it simple. NASCAR should set a precedent that any drivers parked for disciplinary reasons lose all playoff points earned to that date in the season. Take Sauter’s Dover win away and force him to do it again before the cutoff race. If playoff points matter as much as NASCAR insists they do, they should officiate like it.

But, of course this is NASCAR we’re talking about and boy, have they been consistently inconsistent in how they handle even episodes such as these:

Quick Hits

  • The only KBM driver to outdo debutante Smith was Burton, who finished third and has scored consecutive top five finishes for the first time since his part-time schedule last spring at Dover and Iowa, ironically, while driving the No. 51 truck. 
  • Though Sauter was parked early, and Crafton faded from the race lead early in the second stage, ThorSport Racing still had a strong showing, placing three trucks in the top 10 (Ben Rhodes second, Grant Enfinger fifth, Crafton eighth). Enfinger’s sixth top five of 2019 allowed him to maintain the points lead headed to Gateway.
  • DGR-Crosley had a welcome uneventful weekend; Raphael Lessard scored his first career top 10 finish (ninth), while Natalie Decker finished two laps down in 16th, breaking a streak of three consecutive DNFs for wrecks.
  • Both Jesse Little and Tyler Hill were extremely strong in the opening stage of Sunday’s race, with Little climbing from 25th to 10th and Hill from the back of the field to 19th within the opening 25 laps. It didn’t carry over though; Little ended up hitting the wall after fading with a tight condition in the second stage and finished 20th, while Hill suffered from mechanical issues that took more than 15 laps to repair. Hill was the last Truck running in 25th.
  • Juan Manuel Gonzalez’s Truck Series debut went about as poorly as it could in JCR Racing’s No. 10; Gonzalez was forced to pit under green on lap 17 for a flat right front tire, and then brought out the first caution of the race on lap 52 when he blew out another right front. Gonzalez only completed 40 laps of his debut race.
  • Despite the fireworks of Sauter-Hill, Sunday’s race saw only 25 laps run under yellow, the fewest in a Truck race at Iowa since 2014.
  • Chastain’s 141 laps led was the most by any driver in a Truck race at Iowa since Austin Dillon led 187 circuits, winning from the pole in July of 2010. 

Rookie Report

2019 Rookie of the Year Candidates:

No. 02 – Tyler Dippel
No. 2 – Sheldon Creed
No. 12 – Gus Dean
No. 18 – Harrison Burton
No. 54 – Natalie Decker
No. 87 – Tyler Ankrum

Number of Rookies in the Race: Six

Number of Rookies finishing in the Top 10: One; Sheldon Creed finished sixth

Rookie of the Race: Creed

Up Next: The Gander Outdoors Truck Series heads to Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway for the finale of the Triple Truck Challenge, where the $50,000 added incentive to win remains in place. Coverage of the Gateway 200 begins Saturday, June 22 at 10 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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