Tyler Ankrum won the 2019 Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at Kentucky Speedway. For the 18-year-old from San Bernadino, Calif., this is his first career NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory and likely clinches him a playoff berth.
Ankrum has not competed in all the Truck Series races this season — he missed the first three races because he was underage and therefore could not race at tracks bigger than a mile. Since then, he has competed in every race, although he has split his races between DGR-Crosley and NEMCO Motorsports (where he start-and-parked) due to sponsorship woes. However, NASCAR granted him a playoff waiver that excused his absence from the first three races.
THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS
When NASCAR made a rule that it could grant a waiver to a driver if he missed a race due to injury or illness, it was a great move. Current playoff rules state a driver must attempt every race to compete for a playoff spot, but the waiver was created to give someone who missed a week but otherwise qualified a fair chance.
Allowing a sick or injured driver to miss a race and not be out of contention was something the sport needed for years. A driver not at 100 percent is a danger to himself and others and needs the ability to take a week off. Ditto a week missed for a major life event, like the birth of his child or a death in the family. It was the right thing to do.
And now, the right thing to do is get rid of it.
NASCAR has overused and abused the playoff waiver to the point of ridiculousness. If it isn’t going to be used for the intended purpose, and only that purpose, it shouldn’t be used at all.
In recent years, the waiver has been given to: a driver who missed 11 races due to injury, one who missed eight (for an injury not sustained in a race), one who wasn’t old enough to compete for a chunk of the season and (my personal favorite) two drivers who were suspended from competition by NASCAR.
A race, maybe two, for injury is one thing. Almost (or over) a third of the regular season? Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. The response to that should have been “thank you for playing, please try again next year.” You also have to wonder if the first driver to miss that many races hadn’t been ultra-popular, then would the precedent be different.
Even if you’re okay with those waivers, what about the age issue? The team and driver knew the rules entering the season: drivers under 18 in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series cannot run anything but short tracks. Because of this, Ankrum missed three races this year. Currently 12th in points, Ankrum is in playoff contention because he won at Kentucky, but it’s a bit hard to stomach that he’ll make it over someone who’s run every race (and Ross Chastain has run every race and got no waiver after declaring late for title contention, so he’s not included in this).
The team knew the age rules going in and chose a driver who didn’t meet them. It’s really that simple. It opens a can of worms for the future that NASCAR should have left sealed up. Ankrum turned 18 in March. What about a driver who turns 18 in midsummer but wins on a short track? It’s a great achievement and should be celebrated. Nobody disputes that. But it shouldn’t warrant bending the rules.
And then there’s Johnny Sauter, who was parked for a race because he pile-drove Austin Hill under caution. NASCAR is pretty clear that that’s not acceptable … except it clearly was in the end, because NASCAR announced Sauter would be playoff eligible in the same breath as they announced the one-race sit-down.
The precedent for that completely ridiculous move stems from a situation where Kurt Busch was suspended for three weeks to open the 2015 season after allegations of domestic violence that proved unfounded. Busch got a waiver (and it can be argued that the suspension was wrong given that Busch had not been convicted of anything, so the waiver was NASCAR’s form of an apology).
But Sauter? That waiver crossed the line — if you’re suspended from competition for a rules violation during a race? Nope, sorry, that shouldn’t warrant a free pass. (Speaking of free passes, they shouldn’t be given to drivers in a race if they lost a lap due to penalty either, but I digress…). NASCAR was way out of line on that one.
If NASCAR can’t draw a line in the sand when it comes to waivers (one week, and only one week, due to injury or major family event), then they should either allow in the playoffs any driver who has a win and is in the top 20 or 30 or whatever in points regardless of how many races they run or scrap the waivers and require drivers to run all races. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the 30th-place driver currently has 216 points, so it wouldn’t be hard to break in with a few top fives. It’s been fairly easily done with a driver missing 11 of 26 qualifying events.
Does this invite things like teams simply skipping a race because they don’t want to travel? It sure does, and that’s not really cool because fans who buy a ticket expect to see their favorite driver. In fact, it’s pretty silly to think NASCAR would allow it.
But it’s also silly to think it should allow a driver who was suspended, too young to race or out for an extended period to get a pass. Oh, wait… –Amy Henderson
IF IT AIN’T BROKEN, DON’T FIX IT
There are changes NASCAR should make to improve the sport. However, its playoff waiver system works, so there is no need to alter it.
Ankrum absolutely deserves a playoff waiver. Since he turned 18 years old, he has competed in every race, is inside the top 20 in the point standings and has won a race. He will likely make the playoffs, and deservedly so.
NASCAR should grant playoff waivers to drivers who compete full-time once they turn 18. NASCAR previously granted Justin Haley a playoff waiver when he missed the first two races of the 2017 Truck Series season because he was underage. Therefore, a precedent has been set before Ankrum.
Thirteen races have been completed thus far this Truck Series season. Only 14 drivers have competed in every race. That list excludes Ankrum, Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.
Like Ankrum, Sauter also has been given a playoff waiver by NASCAR. He didn’t compete in the race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway simply because he wasn’t allowed to. He has won a race, competed in every other race and is inside the top 20 in the point standings. NASCAR rightfully gave him a playoff waiver.
Self missed two races because he was also suspended by NASCAR. However, his suspension stemmed from the fact he failed a drug test. NASCAR set the precedent that drivers who are suspended for drug test violations are not playoff eligible last year when it suspended Spencer Gallagher. Unlike Self, Gallagher had won a race, but he was ineligible for the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs due to the suspension.
Another driver who affirmed NASCAR’s playoff waiver system worked was Ryan Preece, who won the 2018 Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway. At that time, he was 15th in the Xfinity Series point standings, yet he had not competed in every race and only planned on racing part-time that season. NASCAR made the right decision not to grant him a playoff waiver.
If NASCAR had granted Preece a playoff waiver, they would have established an unwanted precedent. Drivers would have then saved their funding to race part-time for top organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing and then searched for sponsorship for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the full-time drivers who work hard to compete in every race would take a backseat to those drivers once the playoffs begin.
Furthermore, NASCAR owes it to the fans not to grant playoff waivers to cases like Preece. Fans deserve the opportunity to see the championship contenders at each racetrack. If a part-time driver stole a playoff spot, fans may criticize NASCAR and there might be complaints the playoffs aren’t representative of the best drivers in the series.
Chastain took advantage of the situation, but he didn’t break any rules. NASCAR allows drivers to switch their points eligibility once a year, and Chastain switched from Xfinity Series points to Truck Series points. He has competed in every race this Truck Series season, won a race after deciding to chase a Truck Series championship and just climbed inside the top 20 in the point standings. He didn’t need a playoff waiver. He wisely followed the rules, and he, too, will compete in the Truck Series playoffs.
Sure, NASCAR’s playoff system isn’t perfect. Last year, I argued NASCAR ought to award each of the Championship 4 drivers a point for each of their victories that season. Additionally, the Championship 4 drivers should receive stage points just like everybody else.
However, NASCAR’s playoff waiver system works. Rather than add to its rule book, NASCAR uses its discretion to hand out playoff waivers as it deems necessary. Ankrum won a race, and he deservedly received a playoff waiver. Now, if he competes in each of the three remaining races in the Truck Series regular season, stays inside the top 20 in the point standings and nothing chaotic happens, he deserves to be in the Truck Series playoffs. –Mark Kristl