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Just three races remain before the 2019 Gander Outdoors Truck Series playoff field is set. So far this season, five series regulars have won races, though their spots in the championship battle aren’t actually guaranteed. In fact, one of this year’s victors could still find themselves on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin at Bristol Motor Speedway next month.
Let me explain. One of the perks of being the regular-season champion is that driver is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, regardless of whether they win a race.
Last season, just four series regulars won races before the playoffs began, and the regular-season champion, Johnny Sauter, was one of those victors. That meant four drivers were able to point their way into the championship battle, something that’s becoming less likely to happen this year. After all, winless Grant Enfinger still has a 34-point lead over Stewart Friesen, who’s also been shut out of victory lane.
Already this year, there are five series regular winners in Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Sauter, Tyler Ankrum and Brett Moffitt. Three of those drivers sit outside the top 10 in Sauter, who served a one-race suspension; Ankrum, who missed the first three races of the season since he wasn’t yet old enough to run at the larger tracks and Chastain, who declared for Truck Series points well into the season.
So, despite being inside the top eight in points, Ben Rhodes and Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland find themselves on the outside looking in with very few opportunities remaining to make the title race.
The point of all of that is that Chastain is still in danger of missing the playoffs if there are three more eligible winners in the next three races. Being the lowest one in the standings currently, the driver of the No. 45 Chevrolet could still be knocked out of the championship battle. Of course, it would take Enfinger remaining winless and a driver like Rhodes, Burton, Gilliland or another driver further back in the standings finding victory lane.
With all of that said, not a single driver eligible for this year’s playoffs has found their way to victory lane at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway, so it’s nearly impossible to look at anyone as the hands-down favorite for Saturday’s race.
Interestingly enough, Austin Dillon holds the best average finish at 4.5 in the previous nine races at Pocono. He made four starts and posted three top fives, including a win in 2014. As far as those entered for Saturday’s race, Gilliland actually leads the charge following a seventh-place finish last season.
I was surprised to find that the next driver on that list is Chastain, who ended up 10th and fifth in a pair of starts in 2012 and 2013 for an average of 7.5. He’s followed by Rhodes, Friesen and Enfinger, who all have average finishes inside the top 10.
Obviously, average results don’t mean much for this year’s race, though it does give at least a taste of their prior success, or lack thereof, at the 2.5-mile track. One thing it does mean, though, is that we’ll have another different winner at a track that’s only seen a single repeat winner in Kyle Busch, who visited victory lane in 2015 and 2018.
For those drivers who have already won this season, the best-case scenario would be for one of them to repeat or for Enfinger, Friesen or Crafton to find their way to victory lane at Pocono since they’re above the cutline currently. That would ensure that all of this season’s winners end up in the playoffs, regardless of what happens in the final two regular-season races.
If one of those drivers currently on the outside looking in takes the win instead, the possibility remains that Chastain won’t make the championship battle if – and that’s a strong if given the expected strength of the Eldora Speedway entry list for next week – two others below the cutoff line win at Eldora and Michigan too.
In all reality, other than Burton and Enfinger, the others that are below the cutoff line haven’t shown quite enough to make me feel like they’re a major threat to shake up the standings with a win this weekend. But we all know anything can happen, especially in such a short race at a track that can prove to be challenging for many, including veterans.
- As of press time, only 31 trucks are entered for Pocono, meaning everyone who attempts to qualify will get to race. Bayley Currey will make his first of two starts in the No. 44 for Niece Motorsports. Additionally, Tony Mrakovich and Bryan Dauzat will make their returns to the series, piloting the No. 8 for NEMCO Motorsports and the No. 28 for FDNY Racing, respectively. Christian Eckes returns to pilot the No. 51 Toyota for KBM.
- Sheldon Creed will have a new crew chief beginning this weekend at Pocono: Jeff Stankiewicz, who sat atop the pit box during Creed’s 2018 ARCA Menard’s Series championship run. The pair scored four wins, 11 top fives and 12 top 10s en route to the winning the title.
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