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Just five races remain in the 2019 Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, and Kyle Busch Motorsports holds six wins in the first 18 races. Shoot, even Greg Biffle, who hadn’t run a NASCAR race in more than two years came back for a single event at Texas Motor Speedway in June and won. Talk about a successful season, huh? Wrong.
In June, Kyle Busch graded his team a “two out of 10” and said his two full-time drivers in Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland “ain’t doing shit.” In fact, even a crew chief shuffle in early June didn’t produce the kind of spark needed to put either driver in victory lane. The pair also failed to put the organization in the playoffs for the first time since the playoffs began in the series in 2016.
Sure, that’s only a three-year run, but for an organization that’s won championships with Erik Jones and Christopher Bell while also developing drivers like William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Noah Gragson — all of whom now race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup or Xfinity Series — having zero representation in the playoffs might as well be considered a failure.
So the question remains as to what the team might look like for the 2020 season. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gilliland is on the way out at this point, especially since Busch said his “career is on the line” and nothing has really changed since then. In fact, even if he finds victory lane in the remaining five races, it’s likely too little too late. After all, he’s had nearly two full seasons behind the wheel of the No. 4 Toyota and all he’s managed to do is post nine top fives in 43 races.
At this point, it’s hard to think Gilliland has a whole lot of confidence left in his racing abilities, regardless of what he may say publicly. He’s well aware of what the equipment is capable of doing, and yet, he’s not been able to translate that into on-track success. Instead, it’s as though he’s started to revert back to the rookie mistakes he made earlier in 2018 when he overdrove the truck and put himself in bad situations.
It’s not that Gilliland isn’t talented. He’s already proven he is based on his performance in the lower series, and he even impressed in a six-race stint for KBM in 2017 as a 17-year-old. He suffered suspension and transmission issues at Dover International Speedway and Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway respectively. But after that, he posted finishes of 11th, third, fifth and seventh … as a 17-year-old!
What Gilliland desperately needs is a quiet season where he can get back to basics and start fresh, and his father’s team, DGR-Crosley, might be the answer to that. With less pressure to perform and more pressure to develop his talent, it could turn into the confidence-booster that it seems he would benefit most from at this point.
Burton is where the situation gets a little murkier. As a rookie this year, he doesn’t have a full-time season under his belt just yet, and he’s had some significant bad luck plague his No. 18 team this season. The most recent example came when he suffered an engine failure with two laps remaining at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park … while he was running third.
I’d like to see Burton get another season in KBM equipment before the team throws in the towel on him. After all, Bell won his championship with the organization in his sophomore season, and even Gragson came within striking distance of the title in his second full year despite missing Pocono Raceway that season because he was ill.
With all of that said, it’s hard to guess where the team could turn from here. An obvious choice would be Chandler Smith, who’s absolutely performed in his limited starts this season. In just three races, he’s posted an impressive 4.7 average finish, led 55 laps at Iowa Speedway — where he posted his worst result of eighth — and finished runner-up at Bristol Motor Speedway to Brett Moffitt, who was in his own zip code that entire race.
But the big problem there is his age. At just 17 years old, he won’t be 18 and eligible to race on all Truck Series tracks until late June next year, meaning he’d miss nine of the series’ first 12 races. And while NASCAR has been known to give age waivers to drivers who weren’t eligible to run all of the season’s races, it’s never been for that large of a percentage of missed events.
What about Christian Eckes? He’s got five top fives in nine starts over the last two seasons, however he’s ended up in the top 15 in each race he hasn’t wrecked out of. In fact, he’s only got two DNFs in that timeframe, and neither was his fault. Last season, contact with Stewart Friesen sent him spinning at Gateway, and this year, he crashed out of the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, along with all but the top-nine finishers.
Eckes is one that’s definitely shown some potential and might be worth a stronger look at. He’s got two poles and nearly 100 laps led in just nine starts. That’s definitely something that leans toward promise in a young driver, especially with an organization that’s made its success in developing talent.
Meanwhile, Riley Herbst, who’s also run part-time in KBM equipment over the last two seasons, hasn’t been all that impressive. He’s got just two top 10s in six starts and has only managed to finish on the lead lap in half of those races. Those numbers aren’t exactly indicative of a driver who’s ready to make the jump to the Truck Series full-time.
Of course, when you’re talking about potential names to fill the team next season, you also can’t leave out Hailie Deegan, even if only on a part-time basis. She even said last month that she’d prefer to run a few Truck Series races next year, and if she’s as talented as many believe she is, there’s no reason to rush that next step.
At this point, what I’d really like to see KBM do is find a way to put a veteran like Biffle behind the wheel of the second full-time truck. As a veteran who’s had his time in NASCAR’s top three series, he would be able to share valuable information with the developing drivers week after week without the sport’s limitations on Cup drivers. But barring that, Eckes looks to be the next-best choice, unless the organization reaches out beyond those it’s already had behind the wheel in a part-time role previously.